Posts Tagged ‘Cooperation’

Can India Learn From Its Neighbours?

August 23, 2013

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

A report published earlier this month says the number of cases of dengue in Karnataka has tripled during June-July, with Bangalore accounting for a majority of victims. Even residents in upper middle class neighbourhoods are succumbing, thanks to a huge garbage pile up that made news even in newspapers in the US. In the first six months of 2013 alone, Karnataka saw 3243 cases of dengue (the official figure – the real numbers are thought to be higher).

Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, too had over 21,290 cases of dengue in 2011. Around 350 died. As in Bangalore, the Lahore authorities too tried fogging to kill larvae, but what really helped was the innovative use of smart phones, to trace locations and clusters of incidence, and focusing on those neighbourhoods. Result: last year there were no dengue deaths. It took just 1500 mobile phones in the hands of community volunteers to also monitor implementation of various other public works projects and reduce corruption.

The fact that smartphones were recording actual implementation work on the ground helped to rein in malpractices. Random calls made to these numbers by overseers help keep track of the quality of service to the public. Given that we had (at last count) nearly 800 million mobile phones in India (for a population of 1.2 billion) has anyone thought of taking a leaf out of the Lahore experiment, and tackling dengue as well as complaints of deteriorating infrastructure? Why not? The use of mobiles also bypasses the handicap of low literacy, as Lahore has discovered.

Though we have had small NGO initiatives using mobiles (to reach rural women in Andhra, for instance, or connecting tribals in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to help them fight official apathy or harassment) we could perhaps learn a lot more by looking at our neighbouring countries. Why do we look always to the West, assuming that they know best, ignoring simpler and more workable solutions that we could borrow from our own neighbours?

Can activists on either side learn from each other, instead of reinventing the wheel and wasting resources, including costly aid from abroad, in the process? Whether it is micro finance schemes, or employment generation projects for illiterate women, or tackling domestic violence, the matrices are the same – and so solutions could also be replicated.

How does Sri Lanka do better in terms of health indicators and literacy, and how did Bangladesh address the issue of reducing irrational formulations of drugs despite pressure from multinationals? If we can think of a BRIC bank on the lines of the Asian Development bank, why not other initiatives for learning and benefiting from the experiences of our neighbours even if they are, like us “developing” countries with scarce resources? Is the problem one of lingering colonial mindsets that sees us turning to the rich West, even for issues that are specific to our own parameters?

I am reminded of the comment that an American feminist researcher made at a recent conference on wife battering and dowry in India. “Why doesn’t the woman just leave him?” she said naively, forgetting that we do not have public shelters for battered women as in the US, or social security that will help the woman survive and feed her children. Where does an Indian woman go? An Asian academic would never make such a comment. Foreigners, being alien to our socio-cultural environment, can only come up with academic-bookish solutions. A Pakistani or Bangladeshi activist, on the other hand, might understand the ramifications of gender – or poverty – issues better.

Professor Anjum Altaf, an academic in Pakistan, in his recent blogs “What plagues development in South Asia” and “Wanted, a real people’s party” (at points out how Amartya Sen’s description of India as “pockets of California existing amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa” applies equally to our neighbour across the border to the west (and also to cities like Bangalore) – incremental incomes and better facilities go to the affluent, rather than to the deprived sections, even if GDP rises.

In terms of social indicators, if Pakistan and India are at the bottom of the table for South Asia (with even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka doing better, despite handicaps in terms of social unrest and/or insufficient resources), it is not merely because of lack of democracy in Pakistan. India is a democracy but is equally stunted due to poor performance in distributive justice and poverty eradication. Could both countries learn from each other’s experiences? We share not just borders, but also many identical problems.

At an international conference in Islamabad, a research study presented by a Pakistani academic about gender issues in the northern regions of Pakistan came up with comments that could have applied equally, word for word, to rural women in the northern regions of India too. The socio-cultural handicaps are, after all, similar. True, we have had problems with Pakistan, even recently along the line of control, as also six decades of political hostility. But why should that stop us from emulating success stories or copying strategies that have worked on the other side of the political fence?

People-to-people, the sentiments are extremely friendly, as I found during my three visits. On the day we became independent, in August 1947, I was a tiny tot in Delhi, but can remember being dressed, doll-like, in a white mini-sari with a tricolour border, and eating sweets that my father bought from the Bengali Market. My favourite was Karachi halwa, with its jewel-tinted red and green and golden yellow slabs, so I asked, nostalgically, for Karachi halwa when I went shopping recently in Karachi. The shopkeeper gave me a broad smile and said, “Apa (sister) my shop specialises in Delhi halwa, it is our speciality, why don’t I give you some of that?” And he wouldn’t take money for it either – his grandfather grew up near where we had lived in Delhi.

It’s time we separated politics from socio-economic concerns, and got on with what needs to be done for tackling our problems, whether it is dengue or illiteracy or gender discrimination. Solutions, wherever they are from, carry no caste, religious or political tags.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bangalore-based writer, musician and consumer activist. This article appeared first in India Together on August 20, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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To Whom Does India Belong?

September 24, 2009

Some recent comments have made me reflect on this question. I am intrigued by the notion that someone can think of India as belonging to its religious majority. I am going to argue that such thinking is arbitrary, inconsistent, anachronistic, and schizophrenic. It is also a vocabulary that is entirely unhelpful in advancing us to a better and more secure future.

It is arbitrary because there is no logical reason for using religion as the characteristic by which a majority is determined. Why couldn’t one say that India belongs to men because there are more men than women in India? Or that India belongs to Hindi speakers, or to peasants, or to the lower castes? No case can be made that accords primacy to religion over all these other dimensions that can also separate a population into a majority and a minority.

It is inconsistent because if such logic can be applied to India there is no reason that it cannot be applied to a part of India. How can one argue that India belongs to its majority community but Maharashtra does not belong to its majority community? One would be forced to concede the validity of Bal Thackeray’s argument.

It is anachronistic because it belongs to an age when tribes claimed ownership of particular pieces of land and fought over them. If India belongs to a majority, however defined, then by definition the residual group, no matter how long it has resided in India, is a guest at best and an intruder at worst. Such a characterization is not compatible with the norms of our time.

It is schizophrenic because it reflects a mind that has accepted the structure of a modern nation-state on the one hand but continues to exhibit a pre-modern mental frame defined by all sorts of divisions between people who inhabit that nation-state.

I have been consistently arguing the case that South Asia does indeed suffer from this schizophrenia. It has borrowed ‘modern’ forms like the nation-state and democratic governance but both its elites and its masses remain infused with the ethos of a monarchy. The elites continue to think of themselves as above the law and entitled to dynastic rule and the masses continue to look upon the rulers, whoever they may be, as their mata-pitas.

If the countries of South Asia are to be modern nation-states, South Asians would have to abandon such archaic notions as someone owning a country. There are no majorities and minorities in modern, democratic, and secular nation-states. Everyone who is granted citizenship by the Indian state is an Indian with equal rights; an Indian – nothing more, nothing less. This is not to say that Indians stop being Bengalis or Tamils or Brahmins or Sikhs but that these distinctions remain markers of culture and have no bearing on differential ownership of India or privileged entitlement to rights simply by virtue of numerical counts. The fact that there may be more Bengalis than Assamese has no bearing on anything in a modern nation-state.

And if there are people in India who do not wish to be Indian, Indians would have to find a way to resolve that dilemma just as Spain has to find a solution to the dilemma of those Basques who do not wish to be citizens of Spain. This is true not just for India but also for Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at the very least.

How we relate to each other is a function of the vocabulary we employ. We cannot continue to dwell in the past and refer to each other as Aryans and Dravidians, Hindus and Muslims, Mughals and Rajputs, Sinhalese and Tamils, Bengalis and Biharis, etc., etc.  Nor can we undo the past. If we wish to move forward with the times we have to employ the vocabulary of the times. In South Asia, we have to deal with each other as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Maldivians.

The welfare of South Asians will be enhanced by cooperation between the countries of South Asia and will be hurt by conflict among them. This may strike some as fanciful but an essential step towards that cooperation may be the choice of the terms we use for each other. It may be how we converse with each other that would have the most impact on our future.

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On Cooperation and Team Work – 5

June 21, 2009

We concluded the previous post in this series with the question: Are we what we eat? This is not a facetious question. Rather, it is an attempt to explain significant variations in human behavior. We approach this explanation by exploring the extent to which our physical conditions and the imperatives of survival might have shaped our social and psychological responses.

We speculated that existence as small and constantly warring bands during the hunting and gathering era must have engrained the importance of the distinction between friend and foe. Survival in these conditions must have depended upon the socialization of altruism within groups and hostility across groups. We still see this in the Us/Them syndrome that is often quite mindless in the present environment – a visit to some blogs would be proof enough. (more…)

On Cooperation and Individualism – 4

June 13, 2009

Before moving on in this series we need to make a correction.

One antonym for cooperation is competition; another is individualism. In the context of the behavior we have been discussing, individualism, not competition, was the appropriate term to use.

The inferences we have made are not affected but it is important to have the concept right.

Let us go over the essentials again and in a little more detail. The essence of the argument was that the nature of the labor requirements of different staple diets could be so different as to socialize very different behavioral attitudes in the communities. (more…)

On Cooperation and Competition – 3

June 13, 2009

I find it hard to believe that I forgot the reason for initiating this series on the possible origins of cooperative and competitive behavior using Malaysia and North India as the case studies.

I had wanted to revisit the partition of India.

This is an event in history that I visit again and again trying to understand how a tragedy of such magnitude could have occurred under the very noses of so many eminent personalities. And the one counterpoint I keep going back to is the situation in Malaysia which, from an ethnic perspective, was even more complex than India but was resolved in a much more satisfactory fashion. (more…)

On Cooperation and Competition – 2

June 12, 2009

Frankly, I do not know if this is a lot of idle speculation or whether there is substance to the hypotheses about the socialization of cooperative and competitive behavior. Nevertheless, I am excited about the range of issues one can think of once the imagination is given free reign. It is an endeavor that holds the promise of interesting surprises.

A couple of questions on the last post suggest it might be useful to start further back in time. Readers have wondered how urbanization and education affect behavior. My response is that behavioral socialization is a very slow process and urbanization and education are relatively recent developments gaining pace only in the twentieth century. The behavioral socialization that was discussed in the last post (differences resulting from wheat and rice farming) is the result of 10,000 years of agricultural life. (more…)

On Cooperation and Competition – 1

June 7, 2009

Question: Why are some people more inclined to cooperate while others are more inclined to compete?

Answer: It’s all in the socialization.

Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion.

I went to Malaysia for the first time about fifteen years ago. I saw in every government office I entered placards on the walls with guidance from the Prime Minister – Be Nice or Be Honest or Make Malaysia Great, etc. What surprised me was the seriousness that public servants accorded such messages. (more…)