Posted in Development, Published Article, Urban Issues

Development should never mean just flyovers and roads

Published in Times of India, Pune on 4 July 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Development at its most basic may be defined as ‘directed growth‘. And that direction is decided by the type of government in power and its ideology: some may look upon development as building infrastructure, others as building human capital.

Conservative governments throughout history have looked upon ‘development’ as an opportunity to leave their mark on history and the landscape quit literally. Great kings have built pyramids, palaces, highways, aqueducts, temples, churches and mosques for their sprawling capitals – and in modern terms, when a government has a 5-year timeframe to work in, it makes more sense to build flyovers, than plant trees.

This idea of development as physical infrastructure took root soon after Independence, when heavy industries like steel were in a boom period across the world, and oil was cheap. So, with an abundance of steel one naturally built skyscrapers, bridges, towers and railways.

Heavy infrastructure of this kind naturally congregates around big metros, which soon become overcrowded and environmentally noxious. There also comes a tipping point when the old residents begin to curse the newcomers to their city and local governments cannot spare the resources to service fringe areas adequately. As urban sprawl takes over, a planned city becomes slowly unplanned…

Meanwhile the small towns in the surrounding region resent this skewed development and keep sending their young to these overcrowded metros to seek their fortunes, because urban planners concentrate their efforts only in the big cities – and soon we all end up living in urban hell!

This tendency to equate development with roads, bridges and flyovers has several negative consequences:

  • Firstly, although investment in infrastructure may raise economic activity and thus the GDP, it doesn’t really create secure, long-term employment in the country. Most infrastructure projects are designed and executed by people already in permanent government jobs in the railways or PWD, and the future maintenance of the infrastructure will be in the hands of the permanent employees of the municipal corporation, so no new long-term jobs are created. Only a very few temporary, low-skill jobs may be created during the construction phase, with little or no impact on the labour market.
  • Secondly, if a government is obsessed with creating just infrastructure, there is always a tendency to bend the environmental guidelines to expedite land acquisition for projects, with disastrous consequences for the biodiversity and natural safeguards of the project area. The draining of the mangrove swamps of Kurla for the Bandra-Kurla Complex is now accepted as the primary cause for the repeated monsoon flooding of Mumbai, and something similar has happened to Nagpur with the unnecessary concreting of all its roads. It is axiomatic that the number of vehicles in a city will rise as the road network of a city expands, and it is the unprecedented growth of roads and fly-overs which has added to Delhi’s breathing problems.
  • Thirdly, single-minded concentration on infrastructure draws public funds away from basic services like education and health care, which are the true cornerstones of achieving ‘human’ development in a society. Without adequate attention to education, health and nutrition, countries like India risk losing their demographic dividend of a young society. And this only aggravates the schisms and tiers in society as future generations have to compete for every crumb of a rapidly shrinking pie.

It is noteworthy that ALL three of Asia’s tech giants first invested in the universalisation and then the vocationalisation of education, to literally lift themselves up by the bootstraps and resurrect their devastated economies: Japan after WW2, South Korea after the Korean War, China after the Cultural Revolution. Only after attaining a fair and equitable human development did these countries move into mega infrastructure development.

India meanwhile, did build up a welfare state after the ravages of colonial rule, but somewhere in the heady days of the IT revolution of the 90s, we seem to have lost track and opted for more visible and tangible signs of connectivity as development, which has unfortunately only made the rich richer, and left vast swathes of India’s population far, far behind.

Post-Independence, India also had the vision to set up a world class infrastructure for higher education, science and technology, but somehow these elite institutions came at the cost of universal education, and hinterland India had to be satisfied with a Green Revolution.

Consequently, India entered the twenty-first century with a billion-plus cell phones but not enough drinking water in every village. In fact, we have all recently seen villagers pointing to toilet blocks and pavements as proof of the ‘development’ brought in by a, b, or c although their eyes cloud over with doubt if asked about jobs, their children’s future and better livelihoods. 

The fall-out of this singularly material approach has been the great Indian tradition of offering last minute freebies just before an election (an approach that ALL political parties are guilty of.)

It’s like keeping an excellent racehorse thirsty the night before a big race, and just before starter’s orders, giving it a large bucket of water which it laps up. The wretched horse will run its heart out in gratitude, but with a belly full of water, it can never win a race.

And the punters who bet against the poor horse will carry their winnings away, laughing all the way to the bank. Such is life!


Business as usual – and damn the environment!

Infrastructure Projects in India

Posted in Poverty, Published Article, Urban India

Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums

Published in Times of India, Pune on 14 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Informal housing – or ‘slum’ as it is derisively called – has become the hallmark of all metros in the developing world, from Rio to Lagos to Nairobi to Mumbai.

The evolution of slums in post-Independence India, however, is the stuff of legend, on which many a career in New Wave Indian Cinema of the 1970s was built….

Several studies during this period revealed that the typical migrant to urban areas was a semi-skilled or skilled male, 18-35 years old, who sent a major share of his earnings back home to support his family.  Housing was a low priority for such a person and he was ready to squat or settle at any location which cost him the least of his hard-earned money. The social vacuum created by a separation from rural roots was compensated by congregating along ethnic, caste, linguistic and regional lines, and such arrangements provided a strong social support system to compensate for the break-up of the rural extended family.

The downside of this has been ghettoization, which not only enhances strife and bigotry, but provides easy mobilization in violent crises – be they communal riots, industrial unrest, or underworld gang wars.

In planning terms, the assumption that slums and urban poverty were co-extensive and coterminous led to numerous ad hoc ‘slum improvement’ schemes at this time, where it was naively assumed that upgrading living conditions in slums in a piecemeal fashion, would eliminate the scourge of poverty from our towns and cities.

However, as the research and information base has grown, it has become clear that the relationship between urban poverty and slums is both tenuous and complex – especially as a second generation of slum dwellers, with few choices and little upward mobility, begin to emerge on the urban scene. They can look forward to a life only in the informal economy of the city, and given our outdated civic laws, even a new-born child in such a household, breaks a dozen laws as he or she draws its first breath…

During the 1980s, urban slums could no longer be seen as extensions of rural poverty and became more or less autonomous. As thriving, self-sustaining social systems in their own right (Dharavi being an example), urban slums were no more synonymous merely with urban poverty. While urban poverty incidence has declined between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, there is no evidence of any decline of the slum population.  As a result, fewer people have access to safe drinking water and nearly 70% are reported to be without basic sanitation. 

Poor housing, infrastructure and urban services are the problem, not poor people.

The consequences of regarding urban poverty and slums as one and the same have been largely negative:

Once a slum is recognized as such, subtle political forces prevent it from ever becoming de-notified and this has stigmatized entire communities of urban poor, doomed to be labeled ‘slum-dwellers’ for generation after generation. As a result, slums become powerful vote banks and can be mobilized for various anti-social activities like crime, extortion, land grabbing, strike breaking and communal violence.

Meanwhile, badly designed slum upgradation schemes have set up an unsustainable regime of subsidies, inculcating the same dependency syndrome among beneficiaries, which was earlier seen only in Indian villages. Providing basic services in slums was made synonymous with poverty alleviation, and the neglect of health and education in urban slums continues to eat away at the human potential of slum populations, pushing them further and deeper into unemployment, under-employment and the informal sector.

On the side of local government, there is a tendency to underestimate the ability of the urban poor to pay for services and they have to learn to ‘do without’ these services. Slum schemes with their emphasis on shelter and basic services, neglect informal enterprise, and compound the problem by making no effort to integrate the informal slum economy within the larger city economy.

Almost all housing schemes continue to neglect the key issues of access, security of tenure, and affordability and it is this – the most visible housing dimension of urban poverty – which continues to scar Indian cities.

Finally, with the entry of private commercial interests into slum rehabilitation projects currently being implemented across India, there is a danger of encroached government and municipal lands passing forever into private hands.

This would be an irrecoverable loss of public assets for generations to come. Instead, Indian cities can perhaps take a leaf out of capitalist Singapore and communist China’s public housing and long-term lease policies to ensure development with equity.


Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

Cities without Shelter

Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Read more: Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums
Posted in Published Article, Urban Issues

How we can transform cities to make them more resilient

Published in Times of India Pune on 27 December 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Indian cities have faced tremendous problems over the last few years and in most cases the action or inaction of various levels of Government have been to blame. For instance, while poor dam management and concretization of natural drain systems have caused flooding, poor regulation of illegal structures by municipal bodies is the main reason for factory fires and wall collapses.

So, the question is, how do we make our cities more resilient?

The Rockefeller Foundation defines Urban Resilience as: “… the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

It is our belief that Indian towns and cities suffer from chronic stresses, rather than acute shocks like say, earthquakes and tsunamis, which plague other metros. These chronic stresses include shortage of drinking water, annual flooding, building collapse, seasonal viral disease outbreaks, heightened air pollution in post-harvest season, traffic congestion, and increasing social unrest.

Most of these stresses can be tackled at the city level itself if our municipal bodies are enabled to provide adequate services like water supply, sanitation and waste management and have the appropriate social infrastructure like schools, clinics, hospitals and first responder services. State Governments can then ensure the equitable distribution of natural resources, like water, among urban and rural areas and provide the intercity connectivity to promote economic development. The Central Government can ensure that the local bodies are adequately funded.

Alas, this is not so. In fact, our cities have never been as incapacitated and under-resourced as they are now, since Independence.

The reasons for this are manifold. As the contribution of the agricultural sector to GDP has shrunk over the years, Central Governments have become more and more dependent on cities with their manufacturing and services sectors, to balance the Union Budget. In its haste to standardize, the Government has rushed through with a Goods and Services Tax (GST) to replace a buoyant tax like Octroi, and large metros like Mumbai and Pune have been severely hit by this change.

Our municipal bodies are still caged in outdated laws like the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 and its brood of municipal acts across the sub-continent. The colonial mindset built into these Acts, is a basic mistrust of the ‘natives’ – so you have an Officer selected by the Centre, posted by the State to run a Local Government. With neither a memory of the past, nor an understanding of the present, he or she is expected to formulate a vision for the city’s future!

Many attempts have been made to strengthen local government through the 74th Amendment to the Constitution (1992) and the setting up of Finance Commissions, but political interests at the State level have not allowed true devolution of power to local level. A Model Municipal Law formulated in 2000 had few takers and upgrading the post of Mayor to a sort of CEO also came to nothing.

The Police and Fire Departments of the city of New York come under the Mayor’s command – remember Mayor Giuliani of 9/11 fame? A visit to the website of the Mayor of Shanghai is also a revelation – not one King, Emir, President or PM on a State Visit to China misses calling upon the Mayor of Shanghai and discussing international deals and treaties. That is what an empowered Mayor means in practical terms, and I am quite sure that barely 5% of our citizens even know the mayor’s name in Indian cities.

The Municipal Corporations have also been losing out on their human capital, as infrastructure projects are now largely privatized. The erstwhile JNNURM and its subsequent progeny brought in a whole new business model of city management – so much so that a City’s vision document was prepared by one consultant, the DPR by another, and sanctioned at the Ministry by a third consultant. I leave the rest to your imagination…

In the heavily financed ‘housing for the poor’ schemes, projects were again privatized, with NGOs and commercial builders replacing Consultants.

In short, when the Municipal Corporation is so weakened in terms of its functions, finances and human resources, how can it be expected to make the city resilient?

Eventually, it is left to the common citizens to pull the city up by its bootstraps after every man-made or natural disaster. One may sing the praises of the eternal ‘spirit’ of Mumbai, but every time there is a flood, a bomb blast, a terror attack, a collapsed building or a fire, the spirit becomes a little dimmed. In the long run, it is not a catastrophe that kills a person or a city but a chronic disease which hollows out the body or the city from within. Mumbai had been labelled a dying city by many experts since the 2011 Census, and one dreads to think what the 2021 Census will reveal about our tired metros…

What is needed is to put in place systems, institutions and mechanisms which make citizen participation in local government a fact of daily life, so that this immense force for good can be rapidly mobilised in an emergency .

A good example of channeling citizen effort is the Kudumbashree Scheme of Kerala:


Urbanisation Trends in India

Read more: How we can transform cities to make them more resilient
Posted in Published Article, Urban Issues

The Tiny Circle Inside Which Most of the Planet Lives

Published in Times of India, Pune on 29 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

It is quite a paradox that while issues like global warming, the rise of the dollar, and global geopolitics are the staples of our conversations, we look no further than the garbage on the sidewalk to define our city and country – never realizing our key position in the world of today and tomorrow.

There is however, a legend of the Internet, known as the Valeriepieris Circle, which sets the record straight, getting across its message simply, visually and effectively.

It is essentially the tightest circle which can be drawn on a 2-D map, wherein more people live inside the circle than outside it. To give you an idea of the density of population in the circle, just ONE Metropolitan Region (Greater Tokyo Area) has a population greater by a million, than that of the second largest country in the world – Canada; while the population of Shanghai exceeds the total population of Australia by another million.

Which brings us to another statistic: 21 of the world’s 35 megacities with a population more than 10 million or 1 crore; and 11 of the 15 cities contributing the most to global GDP by 2030, are in this circle. On the negative side, not ONE city in the top 45 cities on the global QOL Index is in this circle, but 9 of the 10 most polluted cities are!

All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people, and cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

Paradoxically, while the region is home to so many megacities, they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium cities, where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organizational resources – as any visitor to a small town (the ubiquitous Indian ‘native place’) can confirm.

The biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains their growing urban poverty and vulnerability in the face of natural and man-made disasters, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. It is estimated that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.

As the UN-Habitat World Cities Report 2016 clearly pointed out: Cities are operating in economic, social, and cultural ecologies that are radically different from the outmoded urban model of the 20th century, and persistent urban issues include urban growth, changes in family patterns, growing number of urban residents living in informal settlements, and the challenge of providing urban services. Adding to these problems are emerging urban issues like climate change, exclusion, increasing inequality, rising insecurity and social tensions, and an upsurge in internal and international migration.

As regards housing, most government efforts have focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford. The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing for the low-income groups, and slums continue to be one of the most visible faces of poverty in our cities. The spatial concentration of poor and unskilled workers in segregated residential quarters acts as a poverty trap with severe job restrictions, high rates of gender disparities, deteriorated living conditions, social exclusion and marginalization, and a high incidence of crime.

Cities continue to be the generators of economic growth across the region, but only those which have got their act together in terms of infrastructure and services, culturally appropriate planning norms, efficient public transport and mobility, and capitalization of land resources will matter globally in the years to come. Sadly, Indian megacities are tired, old and neglected, and will become national liabilities rather than assets as time goes by.

By 2030, global demand for energy and water is expected to grow by 40 and 50 per cent respectively, and our cities will get more and more polluted, our water more contaminated. In urban areas, climate change impacts like heat waves, heavy rains and droughts can compound one another, making disaster risk management more complex. Just keeping a city clean is becoming more labour intensive and costly every day, and solid waste management dominates municipal annual budgets in low- and middle-income countries, with shares of 30 to 50 per cent.

As we watch our compatriots wearing masks in the thick Delhi smog, as they continue to light crackers to celebrate Diwali, the question we have to ask is do Indians really care?  May be if we started realising the immensity of problems facing our cities, we would insist upon political parties providing a workable National Urban Framework to: strengthen and empower local governments, decentralise power, devolve resources, take a more flexible and Indian approach to town planning, provide genuine accountability, and develop the administrative capacity to implement public policies.

Next election let us ask for liveable cities.

Next election let us ask for the moon


Cities of Asia and the Pacific

Posted in India

Independence Day 2022: 75 years of growth or dissolution?

15 August is just a date, and 75 is just a number, but this year, as India celebrates the diamond jubilee of its freedom from oppressive colonial rule, these numbers focus our minds sharply on what has been gained… and lost.

India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his dreams and hopes in one of the most famous speeches of the English language (Tryst with Destiny) at midnight on 15 August 1947; and for the next 17 years, he endeavoured to strengthen India’s Independence in every sense of the word:

The first priority was to provide self-sufficiency in food – hence the Green Revolution and the foundations of a vast network of irrigation and hydro-electric power stations in rural areas.

Equally important was the consolidation of India’s natural resources through the creation of various Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) in Mining, Energy, Infrastructure, Communication and Transport. Several Public Sector manufacturing units also came up, and were dubbed the temples of New India – industrial and urban India was on the cusp of a great revolution.

Then came an ambitious programme to strengthen human resources through the creation of world class institutions of learning in everything from the Pure Sciences, to Technology, to Business Management and the Liberal Arts, to Medicine and Space Research, to Defence R&D to the Nuclear Sciences.

Internationally, Nehruvian India stood proud and tall as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the country which everyone had expected to disintegrate within a decade of Independence, found its rightful place on the world stage as an arbiter of good common sense, an exemplar of unity in diversity, and a proponent of peace and goodwill among nations.

There was a simultaneous effort to improve the quality of life of the country’s citizens through various poverty alleviation programmes, and the vast improvement in Human Development Indicators in the second half of the last century, are evidence of their success.

However, the world caught up with India and after the oil shock and various wars of the 1970s, came the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, and inevitably, the dawn of an era of globalisation accompanied by liberalisation and privatisation.

Ironically the great economic reforms which were ushered in by Pandit Nehru’s own party were to sound the death knell of the great Nehruvian dream of planned development, and pave the way for a right-wing government under A B Vajpayee, which merrily went on to sell some precious gems from India’s public sector, to private investors. Between 1999 and 2004, the BJP privatized the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO), Hindustan Zinc (both to Sterlite Industries), Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited (to Reliance Industries) and VSNL (to the Tata group) and various state government establishments as well. While the track record and future of these companies were considered good at the time of sale, they have all failed under the private establishments that they were sold to.

Between 2014 and 2018 the present government divested a total of ₹1,94,646 crore – and as most of these PSUs were literally run into the ground to justify their sale, it led to a loss to the taxpayer of over ₹69,575.64 crores over the past decade.

So much for Indian independence and self-sufficiency in key areas of manufacturing.

Ditto with the human resources which have leached away to foreign shores with full support of the government, which has done little or nothing to staunch the brain drain and incentivize investment in India by its expatriates. Studies have found that 23,000 Indian millionaires have left India since 2014 and that nearly 7,000 millionaires left in 2019 alone, costing the country billions in tax revenue. Since 2015, nearly 9 lakh Indians have given up their citizenship.

So much for Indian independence and self-sufficiency in key areas of learning and knowledge.

And the final loss of independence stares us in the face in the arena of foreign relations, as India scuttles embarrassingly from this side to that – swinging from BRICS to QUAD, with no principled reasoning to support either side. And with a world on the verge of moving away from the unipolarity of the last 30 years to a distinctly multipolar order, we are very much in danger of being utterly marginalized in world affairs. Sad but true.

The coming decades will be crucial and here’s hoping we can overcome the growing poverty, the immoral inequality, the increasing divisiveness, and our marginal global profile, so that we can celebrate the Centenary of our Independence as a truly great nation in 2047. Amen!

Posted in Governance, India

Ethical Consumption and Indian Industry 2.0

First published on 8 February 2015

I started this blog to counter the current Indian Government’s proclivity for mega pronouncements without thinking through the implications. The latest buzz phrase is ‘Make in India’. But make in India for whom? The domestic consumer or the European and American consumer, where India hopes to replace China as the key provider of the basic essentials of life?

Update 1:

Despite various bans and boycotts imposed by the Government of India on Chinese goods following a border clash, Indian imports from China in 2021 reached a whopping $97.5 Billion, a 30% rise from 2019. Moreover, these imports are largely ‘manufactured’ goods like electrical and mechanical machinery, auto components, pharmaceutical ingredients, and medical supplies like oxygen concentrators and PPEs.

So much for ‘Make in India’…

India is also not able to compete in export markets for manufactured goods because of its relatively poor infrastructure and tedious red tape, widespread petty corruption, an ill-educated workforce (by international standards) and the prevalence of child labour and forced labour somewhere in every corporate supply chain, which creates a very negative image of the country in the minds of the western consumer, who is tech-savvy, globally connected, well-informed and increasingly believes in conscious consumerism.

Update 2:

Need for Regulating Supply Chains

In the early years of this century, the movements for ethical supply chain management gathered momentum, and every time there was a furore in the western media about environmental damage, animal experimentation, poor labour practices, or unsafe working conditions anywhere down a long and trailing multinational supply chain, the most high-profile retailer bore the brunt of boycotts and protests. This was unacceptable in economic terms and extremely expensive in transnational legal terms, and so a global standard had to be put in place to assure ethical supply chain management.

The best known of these is the SA8000 initiated by Social Accountability International, a US-based non-profit. The SA8000 looks at human rights in the workplace, worker safety, child labour and forced labour and other issues, based upon ILO guidelines, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the UNICEF Convention on Rights of the Child.

Its 9 principles for certifying a business as SA8000 compliant are:

  1. Child Labour: No child labour; remediation of any child found working
  2. Forced Labour: No forced labour; no lodging of deposits or identity papers at employers or outside recruiters; no trafficking
  3. Health and Safety: Safe and healthy work environment; system to detect and prevent threats to health and safety; regular health and safety worker training; access to clean toilet facilities and potable water
  4. Freedom of Association and Right to Collective Bargaining: All personnel have the right to form and join trades unions and bargain collectively; where these rights are restricted under law, the company shall allow workers to freely elect their own representatives
  5. Discrimination: No discrimination based on gender, race, caste, origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, family responsibilities, trade union or political affiliation, or age; no sexual harassment
  6. Discipline: No corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion or verbal abuse
  7. Working Hours: Compliant with applicable law, but, in any event, no more than 48 hours per week with at least one day off following every six consecutive days or work; voluntary overtime paid at a premium rate and not to exceed 12 hours per week; overtime may be mandatory if part of a collective bargaining agreement
  8. Remuneration: Wages paid for a standard work week must meet legal and industry standards and be sufficient to meet the basic needs of workers and their families and to provide some discretionary income
  9. Management Systems: To earn and sustain certification, facilities must go beyond simple compliance to integrate the requirements into documented management systems and into their supply chain, including complaints response, workplace dialogue, and stakeholder engagement.

Compliance with SA8000 includes compliance with ILO conventions, local and national law, openness to worker concerns, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Research I undertook in 2012 threw up the following interesting facts about the 614 SA8000 compliant businesses in India at that time:

  • The most common businesses opting for SA 8000 were small and medium enterprises, (the reasoning is that large, heavy manufacturing businesses already have the statutory framework in place in compliance with the existing labour legislation in India, and therefore do not require an SA 8000 type of certification for their international trade activity).
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses are essentially part of the supply chain of large multi-national retailers, who insist on such certification, while domestic retailers seldom do
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses manufacture consumer nondurables like apparel, textiles, footwear, processed foods, leather and sports goods
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses are likely to be located in the States with niche manufacturing small and medium sector enterprises, like Tamil Nadu, where the overwhelming number of SA8000 compliant companies were in Tirupur, a cotton apparel town, sometimes called the ‘ganji’ or capital of the world for its exclusive production of men’s vests and T-shirts.

However, just 600-700 ‘ethical’ businesses in a country with hundreds of thousands of small and medium enterprises is indeed laughable, and this ‘tokenism’ in the name of ethical supply chains by the manufacturing sector is bound to take its toll in the international market, where the conscious consumer is now king.

Whatever claims of equitable work conditions are made by corporate India, the sad fact is that India’s image abroad has steadily declined as it continues its downward slide in various international rankings like the World Hunger Index and the World Press Freedom Index; besides the negative press it gets abroad for its growing communalism, casteism, curtailment of dissent, and treatment of protesters.

The aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic too has added to India’s woes as huge masses of rural children have dropped out of the education system into forced and child labour, and general poverty, unemployment, informalisation and inequality have reached frightening levels.


Thus, before proclaiming grandiose schemes like ‘Make in India’, perhaps the Government should overcome its aversion to ‘leftist’ ideals of a rights-based approach to human development – especially, education, vocational training, and public health. This was the path so successfully followed by Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. Let India not go down in history as the country which so carelessly threw away its priceless demographic dividend.

Posted in The World Beyond

Nordic Noir – Fiction or Fact 2.0

I have posted 96 posts to this website and these have been a mix of comments on topical events, summary of Reports from UN organizations, theoretical frameworks for various aspects of development and governance, and India-focused posts twice a year on its Independence Day and Republic day.

And then there are posts I simply enjoyed writing.

There are some posts which figure repeatedly in the daily stats and others long forgotten and buried unread or unseen. Starting today, I shall be re-posting some of the most meaningful posts in my opinion – duly updated when necessary. So do watch this space and, better still, subscribe to this website for free so that you get a notification in your inbox each time something is posted or reposted here.

Thanks to the readership now touching 158 countries!

This post was first published on 15 March 2015


  • Joyful Headlines seen late last year: All Five Scandinavian Countries Now Have Centre-Left Governments
  • The World Happiness Report 2021 lists all 5 Nordic Countries in the Top 7

For me, and perhaps most English speaking Indians, the Nordic nations are best discovered through the excellent crime fiction these countries produce. Perhaps, like me, they too discovered Nordic noir  through the famous Millennium Trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson with its unforgettable protagonist Lisbeth Salander – probably the most memorable literary character in a long, long, time…

It was only a short step from there to discovering Jo Nesbo (Norwegian) and Arnaldur Indridason (Icelandic), Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, and many, many more I am still uncovering…

And of course, as already noted by millions across the world, all these books (essentially of the ‘police procedural’ genre) have several common threads running through them: like a sense of brooding melancholy, the local landscape as a potent character in itself, dysfunctional families, the ever-present shadow of Nazism past and present, xenophobia, child abuse, and moral ambiguity…

It is not unknown for serial killers to get away, or for emotions like loyalty, love and hate to get in the way of law enforcement. Life is not clearly cut-and-dried in black and white…

In fact, Nordic noir runs the gamut from grey to grey…

The protagonist in most cases is a police officer with heaps of personal problems but absolutely honest when it comes to his work, and never afraid to speak the truth. He (or she) may not be a believer in rules and regulations but is guided by his own moral compass, aligned to the great universal truths of all humanity – which supersede man-made laws of evidence and proof.

Perhaps it is this trait, this alignment to a universal truth, which sends a young Danish nurse to the slums of Calcutta, or a Swedish activist to fight modern day slavery, or a Norwegian Doctor to scream in anguish from the blood-slicked corridors of the Al Shifa Hospital, which shook a whole continent from its stupor and awakened them to the horrors of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in 2014.

So despite the unhappiness of individuals portrayed in their crime fiction, I think the Nordic countries have really got something right…

It is no wonder then, that they score high on the Human Development Index, have the least social disparity, and are now also in the top ten of the World Happiness Index: (yes, there is such a thing, believe me!) According to the World Happiness Index Report 2013, the top ten countries were:

The report also charts the difference in perceived happiness across the world between the period 2005-07 and 2010-12, and I have picked a few representative countries to get a better understanding of the trend.

The Nordic nations are, as expected ‘happier’ than ever before, along with Chile, Brazil, Russia, China and Germany; but the UK, France, Pakistan and USA show marked decreases in perceived happiness…

You know what they say about violence: the more violence you put out into the universe in the form of war, drone attacks, regime change, and torture camps; the more likely are you to have violence on your own doorstep in terms of drug wars, inner city crime, drive-by shootings, race riots, campus shoot-outs and so on…

The same is true of unhappiness too, I suppose…

I received this comment from J E Jakobsen on ICH in 2015, but am re-posting it here:

Hey Nasrin,

Being a Nordic person, I read your article “Fiction and Fact” with great interest.

In the context of this ICH article, you highlight some positive traits of Nordic societies. I have lived outside the Nordic region for 17 years now and have grown accustomed to the Asian way of life: entrepreneurial and buzzing, yes indeed, but recklessly selfish and no safety nets whatsoever for the have-nots.

Whenever I go back to Norway, I’m awe-struck by how comfortable lives people are leading; plenty of free time, high personal incomes and free healthcare. I think an important factor of the Nordic mindset is we are NOT brought up to believe we are anyone special, but to seek the simple and not necessarily the most luxurious pleasures in life. It may sound harsh, but it’s probably led to Nordic people feeling very comfortable about being equals. With support structures in place you actually don’t NEED to be the richest and most successful kid on the block. Remember also that Nordics are few in numbers and live with vast space. No stress on resources and fighting over them, probably also contributes to their “happiness”.

Putting this into perspective: the American Dream teaches people to pursue their own dreams and make them come through, but really, how many percent of 300 million people can realistically achieve those dreams? Americans often see Nordic socialism as a form of communism (i.e. an evil) but this couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary a healthy balance between state and private ownership is desired. Recently a petition by the people of Norway actually halted the government from selling the airport-link between Oslo and its airport off to Chinese investors. State involvement was actually preferred, because people use those services frequently and felt better served by the state than a private party. Yes, this was probably also a case of xenophobia, but experience has shown that the people of Norway, at least, has been better served by keeping an eye on their politicians and controlling their own interests.

In the end, what is most striking about happiness itself and as a concept, is that it comes not from enriching yourself to the max, but through unselfishness and sharing. In Norway this is done through high taxes by a state intermediary! But the blows suffered by high taxation are often softened by the rewards you reap by giving to others, and ultimately also receiving when needed. Unfortunately selfishness is on the rise and the common belief is that fending for yourself is the only way. Sadly many people don’t have the choice and must continue to do so. But in more modern and developed societies, this belief system tears away traditional support structures and also enables the widening of income gaps – all around. Communism, no thanks. Capitalism, no thanks. But something in between does exist, and it seems to work better than the other two…

Posted in India

Republic Day 2022: Speaking of Inequality…

The 26th of January is celebrated as Republic Day to mark the date on which Independent India’s Constitution came into effect.

The Indian Constitution is a remarkable articulation of a post-colonial dream – to reshape the very matrix of socio-political interactions in a country enslaved by the inequities of caste and class stratification, religious strife, foreign occupation, and endemic poverty.

Its awe-inspiring PREAMBLE leaves no one in doubt of these intentions:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation …

And to be fair, successive Indian governments have made numerous inclusive laws, implemented social justice schemes, and formulated multiple programmes and projects to ensure that Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity prevail.

However, in recent years, the emergence of right-wing governments across the globe with their concomitant Neocon free market economic policies, and the growth of individual innovators in technology has seen unprecedented growth in the wealth of a few at the cost of the many – and India is no exception.

As the India Supplement 2022 of the Oxfam Report INEQUALITY KILLS reveals:

  • Despite it being the worst year yet for India during the pandemic, the number of Indian billionaires grew from 102 in 2020, to 142 in 2021. This was also the year when the share of the bottom 50% of the population in national wealth was a mere 6%.
  • The combined wealth of the richest hundred Indians on the Forbes list stands at more than half a trillion US$.
  • In 2020, India’s top 10% held close to 45% of the country’s total national wealth.
  • The richest 98 Indian billionaires had the same wealth (USD 657 billion) as the poorest 555,000,000 people in India, who also constitute the poorest 40%.
  • India is home to a quarter of all undernourished people worldwide. The 2021 FAO report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World states that there are over 200 million undernourished people in India.
  • Daily wage workers topped the categories of people who died of suicide in 2020, followed by self-employed and unemployed individuals.

These inequalities have been exacerbated by indifference, inaction and even deliberate pro-rich biases of the present regime:

  • The chronic neglect of the healthcare system in India is clear when one looks at the poor budgetary allocations to the sector made by successive governments. Other middle-income countries (MICs) like Brazil (9.51), China (5.35), Russia (5.32) and South Africa (8.25) have allocations much higher than India (3.54). This consistently poor spending on health has also created gross inequalities in the healthcare system: for example, the life expectancy of a Dalit woman is approximately 15 years less than that of an upper caste woman.
  • Despite a recognition of the value of spending on education, India’s governmental expenditure on education has stagnated, remaining around 3% of GDP between 2014-15 to 2018-19, against the historic target of 6% of GDP. Other MICs like Brazil (6.1), Russia (4.7), and South Africa (6.8) allocate far more in comparison. A bad situation was made infinitely worse by the COVID 19 Pandemic, when only 4% of rural SC/ST students were able to study online on a regular basis.
  • The pandemic also saw many children pushed out of school and into child labour. (A study by Aide et Action found that 50% of migrant children were engaged in work to help their parents, and 67% accompany their parents on worksites.)
  • Between June and October 2020, child marriages reportedly increased by more than 33%.
  • Awareness of PDS among respondents was at 66%, but one-third of the respondents with a ration card were unable to buy ration at a PDS outlet.
  • Only 8% had heard of Ayushman Bharat and just 1% had a health card.
  • Additionally, the awareness of labour codes was close to zero.

Inadequate expenditure on health, education and social security go hand-in-hand with the rise in privatisation of the provision of essential goods and services, thus increasing inequality in the country. 

The proportion of India’s children attending a government school has now declined to 45% – this number is 85%  in the USA, 90%  in England, and 95% in Japan. Sending a child to a private school is approximately NINE times the cost of a government school.

The growing inequality in the country with the wealthiest 10% amassing 45% of the national wealth, while the poor struggle for access to health, education and social security, calls for specific policy responses to tackle the issue.

The Oxfam Report makes the following suggestions to address this growing inequality:

  • Redistribute India’s wealth from the super-rich to generate resources for the majority: A 4% wealth tax on the 98 richest families in India can take care of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for more than 2 years, the Mid-Day-Meal programme of the country for 17 years OR the Samagra Siksha Abhiyan for 6 years. Similarly, estimates suggest that a 1% wealth tax on 98 richest billionaire families can finance the Ayushman Bharat scheme for more than SEVEN years OR the Department of School Education and Literacy of the Government of India for one year.
  • Generate revenue to invest in the education and health of future generations: A temporary 1% surcharge on the richest 10% population could help raise an additional INR 8.7 lakh crore, which could be utilised to increase the education and health budget.
  • Enact and Enforce Statutory Social Security Provisions for Informal Sector Workers: While the government is recognising gig economy workers, it also needs to focus on laying the legal groundwork of basic social sector protections for 93% percent of India’s workforce. It is time to reverse privatisation and commercialisation of public services, address jobless growth and bring back stronger social protection measures for India’s informal sector workers.

Who can argue with that!

Jai Hind!

Posted in India

Independence Day 2021 : Redeeming the Pledge

At Midnight on the 15th of August 1947, India won its freedom from British Colonial Rule and on that historic occasion, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India delivered the famous Tryst with Destiny speech, which ranks amongst one of the greatest speeches of the last century, in any language.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

He went on to outline the many challenges the new nation, bent and broken by centuries of servitude, more diverse and ungovernable than any other on the planet, faced…

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom, we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons us now.

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means, the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and poverty and disease and inequality of opportunity.

And it was this Nehruvian Vision which makes it possible for every Indian to look back with pride at what has been so painstakingly and assiduously achieved, in the face of adversity, scarcity, conflict and constraint:

Lately however, it is becoming more and more difficult to keep India’s tryst with destiny, as we seem to be moving backward from the road to human development, which changed a billion lives for the better, over 75 long years.

Some indications:

  • The Pew Research Centre, using World Bank data, has estimated that the number of poor in India (with income of $2 per day or less in purchasing power parity) has more than doubled to 134 million from 60 million in just a year due to the pandemic-induced recession. This means, India is back in a situation to be called a “country of mass poverty” after 45 years
  • As manufacturing jobs dry up, workers are returning to the low-productivity farm sector. Getting back to a higher growth trajectory will require getting people out of this disguised unemployment and into more gainful productive employment. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has been monitoring these numbers and its Consumer Pyramids Household Survey shows that these numbers have been steadily rising in recent years. The government’s own Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) shows that employment in agriculture, as a percentage of total employment, has gone up from 42.5% in 2018-19 to 45.6% in 2019-20. In other words, our labour force is in reverse gear and the situation can only grow worse, resulting in India forfeiting its demographic dividend
  • Globally, India fell 20 places in ten years on the WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX – from 122 in 2010 to 142 in 2020. This story is becoming all too familiar, whether it is the World Development Index, the Social Progress Index, the Human Development Index and a myriad other global indices and criteria

Nehruji ended his speech with rousing words indeed:

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be. We are citizens of a great country on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.

And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.


Posted in Poverty

Working with Poor Communities

In February 2021, President Xi Jinping of China proudly declared the eradication of extreme poverty in his country – and this is indeed a historic achievement for the world’s most populous nation, with centuries of endemic poverty, inequalities and feudal injustices to deal with – but how far the rest of the world will be able to emulate China in this regard, is a moot point.

The very first two goals of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are in fact:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

However, with the fallout from a year of pandemics and disasters still being measured, it is extremely unlikely that the governments in vulnerable areas like South Asia will be able to achieve these goals on schedule. And with some of the most populous nations on the planet, the figures from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh et al) can affect global targets drastically.

Meantime, civil society around the world has been moved by the plight of the suffering millions on an unprecedented scale, and every country, city, community is looking for ways in which the better-off (especially the young) can do something to ‘give back to society’.

Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned efforts remain unorganized, making them prone to opportunistic politicization, or else individual inspiration drips away as a trickle into the empty desert sand – making no lasting impact on the lives of their intended beneficiaries.

I have noticed that one of the most bookmarked posts on this website is Dimensions of Urban Poverty, and always believed that it was something students googled most often, perhaps for a class assignment or as an introduction to their own writings on urban poverty. Then I got a request from somebody in India who felt inspired by my various posts on poverty and wanted my help in designing certain voluntary actions because they ‘wanted to give back something to society’ by working with deprived communities in their areas. As the viewership of this blog has now hit 155 countries, I realized that people across the world may be looking for some framework to hang their good intentions on, so why don’t I attempt a simple generic template for voluntary action among poor communities, which could be customized to local needs and used across the world?

This framework draws largely on the well-known Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, where sustainability is achieved by building up 5 types of ASSETS or CAPITAL: Human, Financial, Physical, Social and Natural.

The underlying assumption is that as we build up each of these capitals, the LIVELIHOOD POLYGON of an individual or community becomes progressively enlarged, so that the individual or community gradually gets lifted out of ABSOLUTE and eventually, RELATIVE poverty.

The SL Framework defines five types of Capital Assets. These are:

Unfortunately, most government programmes tend to focus on just one type of capital/asset, thereby greatly shrinking the options available to the poor. For example, slum upgradation programmes in India concentrate on providing only physical infrastructure like internal roads, storm drains, public water and sanitation, and neglect the growth of human capital through better health and education services. This results in a skewed livelihood polygon with a much smaller area of opportunity for the individual and community.

This is where Voluntary Action can fill the interstices, as it were, and help in building up all 5 types of ‘capital’ in a poor community so that the overall livelihood polygon can be expanded.

Thus, FINANCIAL CAPITAL can be greatly augmented through:

  • Providing a place for a cooperative store / fair price shop to be run by the community
  • Starting kitchen gardens
  • Installing metered electricity connections in each household
  • Forming women’s Self-Help Groups and Thrift Societies
  • Setting up labour cooperatives
  • Providing vocational training geared to local handicrafts / industry
  • Helping artisans to adopt modern design, manufacture, and management practices to make their traditional goods attractive to the modern consumer
  • Facilitating the listing of local businesses on e-retail sites like Amazon

NATURAL CAPITAL can be enhanced by easy ‘doables’ like:

  • Providing a playground for children near their homes
  • Initiating participatory activities for improving community environment and sanitation
  • Providing the means for rainwater harvesting, localized garbage treatment and recycling
  • Developing sources of renewable energy like wind or solar power, depending on the geography and feasibility
  • Ensuring a clean and safe drinking water supply in every home

The growth of HUMAN CAPITAL in a community is a combination of sound health, education, skill development and capacity to work. All countries have numerous human development programmes either initiated by donor agencies, through NGOs, or undertaken by Governments themselves. Voluntary agencies can run their own micro-programmes within communities to enhance their Human Capital, such as:

  • Holding camps for regular antenatal and post-natal check-ups including counselling and testing for HIV/AIDS and STD
  • Conducting nutrition checks on under-5 children on a monthly basis
  • Mass testing for communicable diseases
  • Organising immunization camps
  • Running training camps in various sports for children
  • Running a mobile clinic scheme for a cluster of poor communities with help from local corporates under their Corporate Social Responsibility Programmes
  • Improving housing and sanitation
  • Running ‘pavement’ schools and night classes for school dropouts / child labourers
  • Mobilising Women’s Self Help Groups for running awareness campaigns against drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, underage marriages, teen pregnancies etc, and monitoring school attendance to prevent drop outs

PHYSICAL CAPITAL because of the high capital outlay is best left to the local authority, though voluntary agencies and self-help groups can play a role in ensuring that this expensive asset is well taken care of, not misused or allowed to fall into disrepair.

Where there is a government funded Housing Scheme for the poor, volunteers can play a major role in arranging proper legal advice to the beneficiaries especially in the matter of land ownership, title, mortgage and taxation which are most nebulous in most developing countries and prevent the assets of the poor from becoming fungible and tradeable – so that the poor remain poor in perpetuity.

It is often said that SOCIAL CAPITAL is the only wealth of the poor, given the vast array of caste, clan, ethnic, linguistic, tribal and kinship networks in rural and tribal areas around the world. These ties, however, are the first casualty, when the rural poor migrate to cities. However, it is possible through development interventions to build new networks and support systems – the most obvious examples being Self Help Groups, Thrift Societies, and Workers’ Cooperatives. Group activities like literacy drives, religious festivals, carnivals, mass immunization campaigns, and nutritional assessment camps are also instrumental in cementing community bonds, besides helping with human capital growth.

Working with the urban poor needs an understanding of the underlying social and political reality and the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework is the most practical template to apply.