Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why the Turtle May not Catch the Hare in Asia's Race for Adequate Infrastructure

China celebrates its Lunar New Year this Sunday (14 February, 2010) with the largest human migration in the contemporary world. Today, its citizens will use many of the 42 high-speed train lines that will be open by 2012. These trains have average speeds as high as 215 miles per hour. Tickets cost the equivalent of one-to-three weeks of labor for an assembly line worker. China's budget for railroad construction in 2009 was $88 billion.

Take a look across the Himalayas to India (the photo is of Chandigarh's Sukna Lake facing the Himalayas) and the infrastructure scenario couldn't be more different. I'm struck by the New Delhi government's anemic investment in a crucial type of infrastructure: water delivery. According to Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma, Delhi's public water utility (the Delhi Jal Board) spends a meager $125 million per year on water delivery. Despite collecting user fees for access to running water, the board recovers only about $48 million per year. The Delhi Development Report 2006 notes that although 75 percent of Delhi's households have access to tap water, nearly 27 percent receive less than three hours of tap water each day. [Incidentally, that figure includes my current home.] To be fair, Delhites do receive more water, on average, than residents in other major cities from Mumbai to Paris. China still outperforms India in providing broader access to water, with 89 percent of urban households able to access tap water according to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What's going on in India? Here's some simple math from CSIS's summary of the Delhi Development Report (2006): New Delhi demands about 3,600 million liters of water per day. The Delhi Jal Board provides 3,040 million liters per day. So Delhi should meet 84% of demand. After leaky pipes and strategic diversions, only 1,730 out of 3,040 million liters – 57 percent – reaches Delhi's paying customers. So Delhi meets 48 percent of its demand for water. With groundwater levels sinking 130 feet below the ground in parts of Delhi, 75 percent of Delhi's drinking water comes from the Yamuna River. The NGO “We for Yamuna” claims Delhi treats only five percent of the 950 million gallons of sewage it dumps in the Yamuna. [By the way, yes I have ventured into this river...see the photo below of one ox-driven trip I took across the Yamuna in Khotana, Uttar Pradesh (Musharaff's birthplace) to investigate land disputes.]

What is going wrong? Delhi's rapidly-growing population certainly strains the bounds of the possible. In the coming year, Delhi's population will grow from 16 million to over 19 million people. The lack of cooperation amongst state governments – who each control various portions of the Ganga River basin - magnifies natural resources' limitations (see the 2004 Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill that ends all water-sharing commitments with Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan). Ongoing efforts to divert “surplus water” from eastern India to the west and south are seen as prone to failure. Take the Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) mega-project that costs $123 billion and should be completed by 2016. Although the President and Supreme Court of India support this initiative, experts on water management and development critique the project's "unrivaled grandiosity". Environmentalists argue there is no true "surplus water" to be re-routed and the project would cause massive displacement of at least 583,000 people in only half of the project's geographic coverage (peninsular India). In addition, the ILR project's budget and scale of action is far beyond India's prior experience: the ILR would move four times more water than China's Three Gorges Dam, five times more water than all of the US's inter-basin transfers, and six times more water than India's current inter-basin transfers. The ILR will cost more than sum total of Colonial and Independent India's irrigation investments from 1830 until now (see the preceding link to Shah, Amarasinghe, and McCornick). Add in consideration of the (much-debated) Himalayan glaciers' retreat and the picture looks gloomy indeed.

In my humble opinion, the root of Delhi's problem is inequality (See the photo of the wedding procession in front of my home last week. Yes, the Rajasthani groom is riding a white horse).

I don't mean to minimize the environmental pressures caused by migration and politics. Given these constraints, the easiest solution to Delhi's water woes would be to recover the losses caused by leakages and theft along the city's 9,000 km water distribution system. The Delhi Jal Board is considering two solutions: raising water tariffs and/or privatizing water supply, which will also increase the price of water. Increasing user fees certainly seems necessary. However, making access to water conditional on the ability to pay is inhumane if rates exceed poor households' budgets. Additionally, these solutions ignore the lack infrastructure for water delivery across the 1,600 unauthorized colonies and 1,100 slums in Delhi. Infrastructure is only becoming more problematic in new suburban neighborhoods such as Dwarka that were built without any consideration of water supplies. Why should theft of water to meet the demand of these under-supplied and non-supplied areas surprise us? How unpredictable is leakage of water pipes in Delhi's neighborhoods reeling amidst population surges?

Without equitable planning that extends and maintains water infrastructure across hyper-poor and hyper-wealthy Delhi, development will be slow on every level. India would do well to study China's extensive investments in improving access to water – such as the $1.35 billion spent to expand rural China's supply in 1991-1995. Regardless of the extent of water delivery infrastructure, water quality remains extremely low in both India and China.

Today, the joint problems of contaminated drinking water and sanitation are the second greatest cause of infant mortality (UNDP 2006, c.f. CSIS). New Delhi will loose some of its brightest minds before it even knows them simply by ignoring poor citizens' growing exclusion from systems that deliver clean water.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Divine incompleteness

I put off writing any sort of concluding blog entry until now because I'm just beginning to examine my impressions of the summer. One week ago I bid a sweet farewell to India from Noida's lush suburbs, leaving the comfort of my good friend Rati's home. Back in the quiet embrace of my own Mountain View garden, I have started to study the weave of my experiences. I tug at this strange cloth of contrasts and try to understand if it will be thick enough to withstand the scrutiny of foreign eyes. Do bear with my attempt to test the depth of my summer reflections.

My thoughts stem from the sense of incompletion that seems endemic to field research, and is clearly illustrated in my own work. This summer's last big journey was a trip to Ayodhya with the Singh family. Thanks to the hard work of Mr. Jaynardan Singh, I made it inside the contested site of the Ram Janambhoomi Mandir (birthplace of Ram)/ Babri Masjid (built by Babur in 1528) despite the coincidence of Independence Day and the end of Sawan monsoons which brought over 2.2 million Hindu pilgrims to Ayodhya. I circled the miles of gated foot passages next to thousands of disciples shouting "Jai Ram! Jai Ram! Jai Ram!" (Ram is Great) around the Mosque/Temple complex, expecting an elaborate palace at Lord Ram's birthplace similar to the Kanak Bhawan. The above photo (courtesy of the BBC) gives a good sense of this trek. Upon reaching the upper-most hillock, I had to blink to believe my eyes. With a result looking ever-so-much like a refugee camp, the faithful have pitched low tents of black tarp above a small, velvet-clad figure of Lord Ram. A few miles away stand replicas of the first Temple of Lord Ram, which many claim predates the Mughal ruler Babur's construction of the Babri Masjid in 1528. However this history remains widely contested. [Sidenote: Historian Romila Thapar presents the most convincing evidence I've seen. She refers back to the original story of Ram, as told in the sage Valmiki's Ramayan, set in approximately 3102 BCE. This contrasts with Survey of India archaeologist Lal's excavations, where the first evidence of primitive human habitation in Ayodhya dates to the 8th century BCE.]

Yet today pillars have been hewn and stone platforms assembled for a temple to replace the mosque demolished by fanatics-cum-devotees of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1992. The violence (pictured below) began with a VHP-organized 'Shilla puja', where people came from across the Indian subcontinent with bricks to build a new temple for Lord Ram at the site of his birth. Supporters of a new Hindu temple remain steadfast that It Will Be Built despite the more than 900 deaths in the riots across the country that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid, continued in 2002's equally horrifying set of riots in Gujarat.

In this context, I consider the Ram Janmabhoomi temple's incompleteness a very, very good thing.

Please forgive me for harping on such a devestating issue to make a few points about India today.

First, my time in Ayodhya emphasized how poorly I understand polytheistic Hindu culture. Walking barefoot through the streets of old Ayodhya, I saw devotees paying homage at the sites where they believe Gods walked the earth. In ancient palace retaining rooms, people flock to beautifully-painted locations where Ram and his divine consort, Sita, once spent their days and evenings together. In modern temples, people stop to pray near the swings that Ram and Sita supposedly enjoy every evening. Given my upbringing in the West's purely secular public life, I am surprised to see large numbers of people intertwine their daily behavior with their Gods'.

Frankly, I find some of this terrifying. For example, consider the transformation of Tulsidas' 16th century epic poem, Ramcharitmanas into a popular story now re-written many times under the title "Ramayan," which Ramanand Sagar made into a serial television show in 1987. All of this is well and good, but a sizable portion of the show's 100 million fans began worshiping the actors in the serial as Gods. Then-PM Rajiv Gandhi celebrated this fact, saying "[Ramayan] has imbibed the great Indian culture, tradition and normal values especially in the young." I hope that India's future will be argued over by a great many contradictory voices, rather than decreed by a single, made-for-television coalition of Hindu deities, but such events make me pessimistic.

Second, the government's response to the politicians who incited the violent riots of 1992 and 2002 has been abysmal. The top politicians in the VHP-BJP alliance who whipped up religious hatred have, for all intensive purposes, been rewarded with more votes, membership in ruling coalitions, and more leadership responsibilities. For example, India's Home Minister at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition, LK Advani, was present in Ayodhya at the time and at the very least did nothing to prevent the violence. However he is now the BJP's President.

I can't help seeing a connection between India's politics and its rampant public sector corruption. An article by JNU Philosophy Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta discusses corruption in the context of Montesquieu's words:
If 'we inquire into the cause of all human corruptions, we shall find that they proceed from the impunity of criminals, and not from the moderation of punishments.'
Rather than witnessing a progressive move towards social equality, it seems contemporary India is reinterpreting inequality as fundamental to its fractured social identity. In this context, laws meant to induce cooperation become a crutch for personal corruption - more specifically, inequality becomes legitimized by the reservation system, and laws based on inequality are poor catalysts for new equality. These laws are good at legitimizing personal hoarding of public wealth. Without any external accountability, criminals become the newly-empowered class, and their methods become not only accepted but legitimized as pushing society one step closer to a poor sketch of equality.

I believe there are many good things about contemporary India, but Ayodhya didn't emphasize them. You will have to trust that I will add a more optimistic chapter to my concluding thoughts shortly.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Storming the fortress gates

Well, this makes one working week in Pratapgarh, but it certainly hasn't been the work I expected.

Let me first give you a sketch of a man who embodies the district. This is thanks to an interview by Prem Panicker:

Kunwar Raghuraj Pratap Singh urf Raja Bhaiya: MLA of Kunda

"How does one classify you? A raja, with the princely 'Kunwar' tag to your name, seeking votes from your 'subjects'? What are you, monarch or democrat?

(Laughing) I am whatever the times dictate I should be, I guess. Ours is a royal family, you cannot wish that away. You cannot, too, wish away the fact that despite democracy and government and all the rest of it, villagers typically look up to the powerful person in their midst -- landlord, raja, whoever -- for their needs. For them, I am their raja, their court of last resort.

And you hold court. A daily durbar, at your Raj Mahal residence, where you listen to grievances and deliver verdicts none may disobey. How does that gell with the fact that you are a member of the state government?

Again, I do what needs to be done. You will have very little idea of what life in a village community is like. Here, people have real problems that demand quick solutions. Someone encroaches on someone else's land, someone illegally harvests what belongs to another, what do you expect the villager to do? Go to court? You know how courts are -- ten years from now, they will still be giving you dates, the list of postponements will swell your case file. A villager cannot afford that -- he needs justice right now, because his existence depends on getting it. If he has to wait 10 years, he will be dead. So, he comes to me, and I help in whatever way I can.

What way is that? Assume someone occupies another's land, what can you do?

I call both parties, listen to their claims and counter-claims. If I need more information the headman of the village in question is there to provide it, and after listening to everyone, I give my verdict.

And it is obeyed. Why? What prompts this implicit obedience?

Respect. Our family ruled this land. My father, Raja Udai Pratap Singh, still flies the royal flag on top of our palace in Bhadri. Every morning, people throng to him, he distributes milk and halwa, he engages in social service. We have looked after this land and its people for centuries, and people respect us for that. Look, if you go to any royal territory, you will find it is the same -- go to Gwalior, for instance, and see the respect the Scindia name commands, see how everyone goes to them for justice.

So it is only respect? Not fear?

Isn't there always some fear mixed in with respect? You respect the courts, but isn't there also some fear, fear of punishment, mixed in with that respect?

That is because the court can punish me, send me to jail. Do you have the right to punish the people here? And how do you do it?

Rights are what people give you. Courts are appointed by governments, governments are appointed by people, so ultimately, the courts too derive power from the people. So do I -- the people come to me, they ask me for justice and when they do that, they give me the power to render justice.


So there is no truth to the reports that you depend on strong-arm tactics, on your squad of bully-boys?


When some Muslims spoke out against your candidature in 1996, Dilerganj village was attacked, five houses torched, three girls trying to escape were chopped to death, the men fled. Is that true?

That the incident happened is true. That I had something to do with it, is not. Here, you are in a feudal society -- quarrels sometimes lead to bloodshed, but how am I to blame for that? If I am supposed to be that sort of person, how is it that there are 10 people contesting against me in Kunda? Why are they not all dead?

I travelled through the constituency, and through Bihar -- and there is not one single poster, flag, bunting, party office, of anyone. Your posters are the only ones to be seen there. Surely, that is because the others are terrified of you?

It could be because the other parties realise it is a lost cause, campaigning against me here. Last time, I won by over 85,000 votes in a constituency with just 2 lakh 45 thousand (245,000) people. This time, my margin will increase. The other parties must have realised that it is a waste of money to put up flags and buntings and all that."

I'm hoping to meet Raja Bhaiya shortly, but til then this is my story:

Day One: Impassable rail and roads made a three-hour trip a day's journey.

Day Two: Cut short by a snake-worshiping holiday (it's the monsoon season, and hence time to worship Shiva) and a new ritual called "Tehsil Diwas" (this is actually a highly worthwhile activity I will explain in the future). However I arm-wrestled officials for meetings. Or the near-equivalent; my able translator Priya Singh got Pratapgarh's reigning heavyweight, Mr. Amitendra Srivastav, Bureau Chief of Sahara News, to help introduce me to a great number of lawyers and arrange a meeting with one of Pratapgarh's elder statesmen, Mr. Tej Bhadur Singh. The wise 80-year-old lawyer still advises his juniors at court daily and holds what seems to be a court of earlier times from his mansion as benevolent elder Zamindar.

Day Three: In breathtaking succession I got access to the Sub-District Magistrate's Land Revenue Court Record Room, learned about ten relevant sections of UP land law; then met the incredibly vigorous District Magistrate, Sendhil Pandian C, who gave me blanket access to all records and a ream of statistics; rushed to SSP sahb HR Sharma, who validated many of my old theories on caste that I had long considered as dear, deceased friends; and with Amitendra's support all seemed effortless.

Day Four: Black despair returns. The Record Room Keeper revoked my access to their files once he learned that I want (pained expression as he contracts his face in horror)... ek hazaar (1,000) case files. Only now does written permission from the DM become a prerequisite. Of course, the DM won't answer his phone. Waiting became so frustrating that I eventually took to sleeping in officials' offices to avoid conscious recollection of the time. In the evening, upon our return to the RRK with Omnipotentent Amitendra, everyone suddenly agreed that I had crossed two continents to do my research, and they should do everything possible to help my work. Hope springs eternal.

Day Five: An early-morning meeting with the local Tehsildar (land revenue official) brings promises of cultivation records to come... However only one record into my data collection at the court, the RRK decided that the information I want is "far too secret" to share openly.

Repeat from beginning of Day Four.

As luck would have it, the RRK took me to a very reasonable SDM (Sub-District magistrate) who relented and gave me complete access after a five-minute, rapid-fire quiz on the minute tenants of Uttar Pradesh's land revenue law. !

An evening meeting with the local Naib Tehsildar (Tehsildar's Junior) gives me reasons to question my current work. However she is taking Priya and me into the field to visit officials in two neighboring villages of my choice tomorrow, and a local survey team will take us out Sunday.

Time moves unpredictably here, and for better or worse this doesn't seem to be a condition particular to me. I'll continue adjusting and learning as best I can.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A fond farewell to Yamunanagar

My spirit drew itself up as I reached Yamunanagar this Thursday. Despite the four hour wait on the railway tracks just minutes away from the city, my return was sweet because I was coming home. The monsoon rains knit a grey veil around the city that lowered around me as I disembarked, but I found help at every stage of my journey.

First two young men emerged out of the unlit streets outside Lucknow's rail station to negotiate a reasonable fare for my luggage handler (Indian suits are heavy!), then another man carried my bag when I needed to change rail cars, and a third man stopped me as I lugged my bags up a flight of stairs at the Yamunanagar station and graciously took my bags across the gap and even negotiated the final rickshaw ride for me. So despite the thirteen hour rail ride my body wasn't totally pummeled by the trip. What was really most striking was my willingness to step back from rushing forward with my work in order to spend a few final days with my Indian family, Gudu, Goru, and Mama-ji. I tell myself I'm returning because I promised I would only stay away a week, and because it gives me time to double-check my logic behind my last research site, to make up for lost sleep, to practice Hindi, and to ground myself before entering a totally new locale. Honestly, though this pause is completely selfish. Finding a sense of home, a family, and the peace that comes with all of that, is a precious gift that I am wont to renounce.

The picture above is the lovely Sodhi family's rooftop, where Gudu and I have spent many an evening appreciating the cool night breezes and the space to talk freely. Below is a view of their backyard, with the sunset following today's solar eclipse...

Although I don't yet have a picture of Gudu, Goru, and Mama-ji, let me show you a little bit of local drama: my first, up-close-and-personal view of a local dispute from (near-start) to finish. Below is a photo of the mobile shop that is adjacent to the Sodhi's home. One evening about a week and a half ago, Gudu and I had escaped the ever-present heat and notable lack of electricity to perch on the rooftop.

From here, you can see the men generally loafing about the shop. Just down the street is a concentration of private money lenders. Sometimes crowds gather when these unscrupulous lenders cause problems for people who come to them unable to repay their debts. This was exactly what happened before our eyes. One skinny, middle-aged man ran down the street towards the mobile shop, followed closely by a handful of hefty-looking men who looked prepared to teach the probable-debtor an unforgettable lesson. Soon after that another crowd of men came with bats and muscles bared. By now a few cars and vans had congregated around the mobile phone shop, where an ever-growing throng closed around the frightened man, with many fierce shouts ringing out into the night.

I asked if we should call the police, but learned this was an utterly fruitless act. In fact, the police did drive by just before the crowd gathered, with a new set of red-and-blue lights flashing. Unfortunately, their cursory attempt to flush out local deviants was probably of secondary importance to the cops, whose primary interest seems to lie in the novelty of scenic drives through the city and the chance to stare at the women on the streets. Their priorities are evidenced by the fact that the one predictable response of a call to the police is Silence.

So who finally dispersed the heady crowd? Who else but the local elders, including a man who Gudu vividly described: "He has a gimp leg, but his long fingers are in every pot." We watched the man with a gimp and several other rotund characters make there way to the shop, after which the crowd dispersed sedately. Go figure! Of course this had nothing to do with caste panchayats. Yes, I have laid that theory to rest.

In case you're worried, my spirits are not entirely broken. Below is me ready to forge into the fields in search of fallow land, disputes, and adventure (in a new suit!).

If all goes well, Monday I should arrive in Pratapgarh, UP via Lucknow, where the 2001 Census tells me there is high variation in village-level amounts of fallow land, and locals confirm that fallow land is not a result of infertile soil.

There are three reasons for good cheer: (1) my old translator Priyanka Singh will return to the field with me; (2) the wise professionals at AMS survey company will help me access local officials, elders, disputants, and so on, in any village I request in Pratapgarh; and (3) my long-awaited meeting with a member of the National Council for Applied Economic Research, Dr. Hari Nagarajan, went extremely well. I should now get access to the most recent round of the Rural Economic and Demographic Survey (telling me all about land disputes and cultivation in 16 Indian states) and have an invitation to return to Delhi and work with NCAER as a visiting scholar this winter!

So despite my sad farewell to the Sodhi family, I have the pleasure of knowing I will return shortly, and hopefully with some good work behind me.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Too close for comfort

In case you haven't heard, another wave of terrorist attacks is hitting India.

First eight low-intensity bombs went off in Bangalore on Friday, killing a single woman, and then 16 bombs went off in Ahmedabad Saturday, initially targeting public transportation at around 6:30pm and then aimed at the hospitals where the wounded were taken. Altogether the Ahmedabad bombs killed at least 38 people and injured another 110. Although no individual or group has claimed responsibility for the first attack, a supposed member of the group "Indian Mujahedeen"apparently warned the media and government of the attack and challenged them to try and stop them. Given that IM claimed responsibility for a similar series of bombs in Jaipur, Rajasthan this past May, it may indeed be the culprit once again.

Today, Sunday, an e-mail was sent threatening more attacks, next in New Delhi. It's somewhat comforting to know that Mumbai's Anti-Terrorism squad has found the computer from which the e-mail was sent. However, officials generally seem extremely underprepared to respond to terrorist attacks, let alone prevent them. Much of the national debate consists of a back-and-forth between the governing Congress party and the main opposition group, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) who not only has an ax to grind with Congress, but also governs the two targeted states (Karnataka and Gujarat). The BJP has done its fair share to keep communal tensions high by reelecting the fanatic Mr. Modi, who is largely believed to have encouraged (or at least not discouraged) the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Anyway, politicians outside of forwarding-thinking Maharastra State aren't discussing the 20 percent deficit in India's police forces, and are completely ignoring the urgency of 550 deaths due to terrorist attacks since Diwali 2005 without the government locating and arresting a single individual or group proved to be responsible for any of these deaths. I understand the need to avoid disturbing the country's peace and tranquility, as Manmohan Singh exhorts, but how about declaring peace in domestic politics first?

By the by, I spent today appreciating Ghandi's Samriti (memorial) and the Qutb Minar's ancient glory that dates back to Mamluk rulers in 1193-1197... I can't end this without at least one picture of today's sites. Below is one hall of the Quwwatul-Islam Masjid, India's first mosque built by the founder of the Slave dynasty, Qutbuddin Aibak using pillars from 27 Hindu and Jain temples.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Minor revelations from a wandering ascetic

These past few weeks have provided great fodder for speculation on why the world is the way it is.

However before reading any further, please do take what comes with a grain of salt. This advice is especially important if you're in a hot climate - dehydration is a constant threat! I may be delusional at this point due to 14 hour power cuts in fierce heat (now I understand why they hold power officials hostage here), monsoon-driven encounters with insects whose names I have yet to learn, and many-a-frustrating interview.

A few flashes of insight have come from my unique position this week. I've been a State Guest of Haryana, thanks to the generosity of Sonipat's Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Ajit Joshi, IAS. He has sped up my interviewing schedule to a dizzying pace by allotting me two extremely competent and efficient aides - the Sonipat Tehsildar (land revenue official), Mr. Hariom Attri who has arranged everything from lodging in a government guest house to meetings with all manner of judges, local lambradars, advocates, and (hopefully soon) khaap panchayat pradhans; and a Program Officer of Women and Child Development, Mrs. Sunita Sharma, who speaks wonderful English and translates for me whenever officials give her time to.

What have I learned from this august position, you might ask?

First - I now understand the despicable state of India's toilets. It reduces to an especially tricky problem of public goods.

Toilet sanitation would be your average, run-of-the-mill public goods problem if everyone wanted clean toilets, but once behind a locked bathroom door, or just in a semi-enclosed stall, most people became lazy and prefered speed to maintaining cleanliness. However things are especially tricky here because all public officials (with enough clout) have their own private bathroom!

So whereas I thought that Indians were blind to the absence of soap, running water, and clean floors in most restrooms, officials ' own facilities showed me the error of my ways. I entered the PO's private bathroom to find soap and shining floors, and then the DC's bathroom, with *gasp* toilet paper and hand towel!

Given that the authorities have no need to frequent commoner's stalls this means the community's recognized authority has no interest in ensuring a major public good: clean toilets. Once a single person dirties the bathroom, everyone else bears the cost of the first individual's carelessness, and not a single reward is possible for the common-spirited, or merely disguested person who cleans up another's mess. In fact, it's both easy to make a mess given frequent water shortages and it's hard to clean such mess, given social sanctions against cleaning bathrooms that apply to anyone who isn't of a scheduled caste. Aiyo!

Second - I am learning to distrust people who place great faith in the power of the written word (that includes me!).

Why such pessimism? Mainly because I've been noting the proliferation of road-side wisdom around Delhi, as well as pithy sayings posted where Maoist agitation has a long history, such as the northern reaches of West Bengal. For example, recent Delhi-region (NCR) signs meant to prevent speeding, ranging from straightforward to profound:
In Maoist areas signs are mainly of the more profound version. Right now I can only recall one:
But really, who are these people who think signs are truly tools for waging a revolution in driving etiquette, statehood, or both? Is the written word really that powerful? I tend to think that no one seriously has complete faith in the power of words, unbacked by any regular agitation. Yet it seems that Delhi's cops and Darjeeling's Maoists are content to sit back and let the signs work their magic. In the NCR region a pitiful number of cops scour the highways for speeding drivers, and in Darjeeling and the surrounding hills I have yet to see a Maoist soldier 'on duty.' (As an aside: certainly Maoists have made their presence known with strikes and rallies throughout West Bengal - but is that really "doing" anything???)

I don't mean to cast doubt on Euripides' claim that "The tongue is mightier than the blade," but rather just to clarify. Words -spoken or written- have force when their author has the ability and will to make her verbal assertions reality. Without such backing, words are the lazy man's crutch. So forgive me for speaking ill of Delhi's transportation authority and the Himalayan Maoists, but certainly they could do a little more than making fancy roadsigns to make themselves credible agents of change.

Third - the sad, slow-dawning truth of my first few days in Sonipat. My hopes of studying social institution's ability to arbitrate land disputes are, at best historically-inaccurate, and at worst the delusional visions of just one more political scientist obsessed with "institutions."

You see, I came to Sonipat (in southern Haryana, just north of Delhi) to study Khap panchayats, or councils of sub-castes (actually sub-jatis) held by the elders of 24 or more villages when some crisis demands their arbitration.

The good news, at least for my research, is that these social institutions are still alive and kicking. In fact, a fairly recent (2005) article titled "Caste Injustice" by T.K. Rajalakshmi in India Today describes social boycotts as a "[c]ommon story in Haryana, [and] in the rest of north and northwestern India. It is a story of the newly revived social power of khap panchayats, organisations representing one or more castes, usually the dominant ones. Khap panchayats do not have much use for the law of the land and hand out diktats according to a `traditional' code of morality."

The bad news is that khap panchayats, or the more general form of 'gotra' (sub-jati) panchayats have moved from arbitrating all manner of disputes to narrow arbitration of disputes about maintaining marriage rules. This change has occurred over the past thirty years as Independent India's courts have gained people's trust. I still hold out some stubborn hope that community panchayats resolve land disputes, which will most likely be dispelled upon meeting panchayat pradhans (heads) early in the coming week.

So what to do? I shall diligently seek out variation in fallow agricultural land and amass data from judicial, economic, and social sources to explain why such variation exists. This is Professor David Laitin's advice and I think it prudent to follow, however heavy my institution-loving heart may be.

But first, I've taken advantage of a weekend near Delhi with a fantastic driver (Dev) to revel in one of the world's oldest cities...

Today included a trip to the लाल िकला (red fort) - where I picnicked beside the मोती मिस्जद:

Of course
I stopped for tea in the Heritage Tea house and visited a nearby tea merchant, Aap Ki Pasand. I am now the proud owner of spring-picked tea buds from Darjeeling, smoky tea from Sikkim, and Assam's pungent black brew, any of which I will be happy to brew and drink with you once I return...

But my day would not have been complete without a stop to India's anti-Borders, the Nai Sarak book bazar in Chandni Chownk... Below is my new favorite store, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers:

Just a few hours in the bustling streets were enough to give me new energy...

I'm not sure what the week ahead holds, but for now I will content myself with an upcoming picnic in the Lodhi Gardens and will invite a few friends: Percival Spear's History of India (Vol 2: 1600-2000), Srivastava's Mughul Empire, RS Sharma's Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, SC Ghosh's Dalhousie In India, various sundry books on the judiciary and land revenue systems of the past, and as a dessert treat, Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian.

For today, I am happy to put of any real responsibility by immersing myself in the past.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Taking a breath from Haryana's slow suffocation of the fairer sex

Okay, I know fieldwork is supposed to be unpredictable, but I'd be perfectly happy if I could maintain some small illusion of control.

Deep breath.

To begin at the beginning, I didn't expect Haryana to be a perfect haven of progress given its skewed sex ratio. Yet given its high literacy rate, wealth, and an appreciation for new technology (the green revolution), I hoped life would be much smoother than in other Indian states.

To make matters worse, I had a fantastic time in Chandigarh and raised my expectations accordingly. I spent dawn jogging around gorgeous Sakna lake with the Himalayan foothills in the background, and the majority of my days were filled with generally-informative meetings, particularly with one of the chief editors of Amar Ujala newspaper, Mr. Yogesh Narayan Dixit, and many officials in Haryana's PR and Judicial offices. With the help of pithy commentary from my refreshingly sarcastic translator, Manmohan Singh, (no relative of the PM) I went off to Yamunanagar feeling relatively prepared to begin fieldwork. Much of what has gone right so far has been thanks to Bhartendu Trivedi of the Hindustan Times, who introduced me to Mr Dixit and many others whose advice has made the journey thus far much more comprehensible.

In fact, these two good souls helped me meet my current source of joy - the Sodi family in Yamunanagar. Mr. Sodi, Bureau Chief of the Punjabi Khesari newspaper in Yamunanagar arranged the first real interview I conducted here. He brought members of a family with an interstate land dispute from the southern tip of Yamunanagar, Gumthala Rao village, to his home. They told me of their case which led to two murders and 65 acres of fallow land. Oh frabjous day.

Anyway, at the end of our meeting the newly-wed Mrs. Gudia Sodi asked me a few questions in perfect English, and ended by inviting me to stay with them in their home and act as my (domestic) translator. I'm incredibly happy living with Gordip, Gudia, and their mama-ji (Gordip's paternal uncle). Mama-ji and I take 4am walks around a nearby park, him a limber 73-year-old walking with his lati (stick) to scare off wild dogs, and me meandering along discussions with my broken hindi. At the end of the day I come home to watch give lessons to some young relatives as I type up my interview notes amidst jokes and tentative questions about my strange habits. [As an aside: The nicest comment I got was from a young lady named Saiba who said "mam, you look so beautiful, like an angel, in your white kourta and all." Given that I am too sweaty to physically shift between work and sleeping clothes each day, I'll take any complement I can get.] Later in the evening Gudia teaches me the finer elements of Indian cuisine, and we chat about things great and small in life. Sometimes we take wild rides in Mama-ji's car late at night - Gordip finding us tasty treats and Gudia translating beautiful Hindi tunes from "Jaab we met". We've even had a proper celebration for a relative's wedding anniversary this past Saturday - Kingfisher and all - with Mama-ji and Gordip pressuring Gudia and me to drink like college boys.

So life is good, right? There are a few research-relavent issues that make me worried (which I describe first) and some cultural issues that chill my blood. I'll start with the kinder issues.

Okay, so all was well until I started pressing about my fieldwork in two villages. I plan to visit 2 neighboring villages w/similar general conditions, but different means of resolving disputes, and then see what sort of fallow land exists in these places in addition to understanding their dispute-resolution procedures. Come to find out: (1) there are informal dispute-resolution mechanisms that are very powerful -खाप पन्चायाट्स।

However (and I appologise for the poor spelling in Hindi - it's a transliteration device similar to babblefish and thus imperfect) these kaap panchayats exist only in Jaat-dominated areas w/in Haryana (although similar panchayats exist for Rajputs and Gujaars in Rajasthan and elsewhere). These areas are all in the SOUTH and I'm in the NORTH. Should I leave the district where only now am I beginning to access relevant case records for another w/kaap panchayats (there is nothing similar in this district i'm told - people simply go to court), or squeeze in some time in a similar, more souther district as time permits? Please do let me know your advice...

(2) Cultural issues... Ahem - anyone who would rather believe all is well please cease and desist your reading immediately. Continue with your good cup of tea or coffee and put aside the blog until I return. Mom - this means you!

So women simply don't leave the home here. Even when I want to take a rickshaw ride of a few km to a nearby, known location like the district court, everyone tries to dissuade me from going alone. Visit a cybercafe or atm down the street? No way. This is the slow, stifling life of women in highly-educated Haryana.

Thus you can imagine the panic that set in when I suggested going to stay in villages. Okay, well I'll find a male interpreter to come with me (my current one is leaving - thus one cause of gloom). NO DOING, I'm told. Why? It's simply unsafe for a woman, especially a foreign woman to stay in a village where she doesn't know people well, who not only will take care of her, but will defend her physically if and when necessary. Apparently there are a lot of violent crimes against women here, and those are crimes against women who are longtime residents of the given villages. I received calls from all of the important men in my life here who are doing their best to protect me, warning me off any overnight stay in villages. One female Indian friend in Bombay who does similar field research told me that most of the violent crimes against women in Delhi are carried out by men from Haryana and Punjab. Upon mentioning this to my translator, (a quasi-Punjabi as I call him) he gave me the most unsettling response ever: "What? People in Bombay have no idea of what goes on in Delhi! Why does she say the crimes are carried out by men from Haryana and Punjab? Biharis and Nepalis frequently rape women as well!"

So I won't be staying in villages. Gordip Sodi has recommended I speak with Lawyers here, who can give me access to land dispute cases in villages, and then I'll go and investigate those particular cases and ask about others through day-trips to villages. This is my current plan, but it is a serious shift- how am I to accomplish my in-depth study of village conflict resolution when I flit in-and-out? Unsure.

Anyway, it's sad to be shuttled back and forth between domesticity and male domains by guardians, especially when my current bodyguard and friend, Manmohan, is departing. However I'll make due, and hopefully find out something interesting.

To end on a happy note, I discovered a fascinating case of vastly different land survey techniques in Haryana and UP - Haryana has something like a grid system, and UP hasn't updated its survey techniques since Akbar's reign, so they're haphazard at best. To make matters more exciting, the Division Commissioner here is experimenting w/use of GPS survey techniques in 5 out of over 700 villages in the district, and I think I could figure out a way to do a very exciting randomized experiment w/survey techniques if he agrees...

take care,