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.

Posted in India

Republic Day 2021

India marks 26 January as its Republic Day – the day WE THE PEOPLE gave unto ourselves a Constitution wherein we resolved that India was to be a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC, which would 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.

To bring about a just, free, egalitarian and fraternal society, the Constitution of India granted ALL its citizens, certain FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS:

The Right to Equality is one of the chief guarantees of the Constitution. It is embodied in Articles 14–16, which collectively encompass the general principles of equality before law and non-discrimination, and Articles 17–18 which collectively further the philosophy of social equality.

Right to Freedom: Article 19 guarantees six freedoms in the nature of civil rights, which are available only to citizens of India. These include the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly without arms, freedom of association, freedom of movement throughout the territory of India, freedom to reside and settle in any part of the country of India and the freedom to practise any profession.

The Right against Exploitation, contained in Articles 23–24, lays down certain provisions to prevent exploitation of the weaker sections of the society by individuals or the State. Article 23 prohibits human trafficking, making it an offence punishable by law, and also prohibits forced labour, or any act of compelling a person to work without wages where he was legally entitled not to work or to receive remuneration for it.

The Right to Freedom of Religion, covered in Articles 25–28, provides religious freedom to all citizens and ensures a secular state in India. According to the Constitution, there is no official State religion, and the State is required to treat all religions impartially and neutrally. Article 25 guarantees all persons the freedom of conscience and the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion of their choice.

The Cultural and Educational Rights, given in Articles 29 and 30, are measures to protect the rights of cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, by enabling them to conserve their heritage and protecting them against discrimination.

In a year burned into human memory by the Corona Pandemic, India has added several cuts and bruises of its own to its fragile social fabric, with scant regard for these fundamental rights, or even basic human rights.

Yet one lives in hope of things stabilizing for the better in the new year.

Happy Republic Day. Jai Hind!

Posted in Reports & Indices

Human Development Report 2020

The first Human Development Report sent a ripple of excitement in the development community as it moved from tabulating mere incomes, to measuring the capacities and capabilities of human beings, as an indicator of the successes and failures of nation-states in providing a better quality of life to their citizens.

The pioneering work of economists like Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen left its impact on a whole generation of development economists, but as the years rolled by, some of the excitement of measuring every possible aspect of education, health and gender in a society, gave way to a certain predictability and tedium.

The HDR 2019, the first under a refreshingly multi-disciplinary team, reignited this enthusiasm because it was much more grounded in current realities: growing inequalities, slower social mobility, democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism around the world. As it clearly outlined, in an increasingly fragmented world, collective action on anything from pandemics to climate change to labour-friendly work cultures, becomes increasingly difficult.

As the Human Development Report 2020 points out, in little more than a decade, the global financial crisis, the climate crisis, the inequality crisis and the COVID19 crisis have all shown that the resilience of the system itself is breaking down, buffering systems are maxing out, and once-supple connections are becoming brittle – leaving them more inclined to break than to bend, further destabilizing the Earth system.

Lurching from managing one crisis to another, how is the global community going to find the resources and time for human development? That is the question the HDR 2020 tries to address.

As an anthropologist, one was thrilled to note that the HDR 2020 is definitely anthropological in flavour. For three reasons:

It proposes that we look at the planet as having exited the Holocene Geological era, which spanned some 12,000 years, and saw the blossoming of human civilization, and enter the Anthropocene — in which humans are a dominant force shaping the future of the planet.
It proposes a holistic approach (so dear to anthropologists), wherein problems are not dumped in separate silos, but are perceived as “…multidimensional, interconnected and increasingly universal predicaments.”
Finally, it looks for solutions in a matrix that combines capabilities, agency and values – one cannot enhance human development singularly by just enhancing people’s capabilities. Nor can we assume that by empowering more people, we will ensure that a stronger ‘agency’ will necessarily make the right choices. All individual and collective action must be underpinned by universally accepted values – but people cannot realize their values without having sufficient capabilities and agency.


The hinge for this report, is of course, provided by the COVID-19 Pandemic which ripped through every country in the year under report. It provides the authors with the perfect framework to posit their underlying theme that as social imbalance increases, so do the pressures on our planet – and the two feed on, and reinforce each other, in a way which directly impedes human development:

The Report argues that “… to navigate the Anthropocene, humanity can develop the capabilities, agency and values to act by enhancing equity, fostering innovation and instilling a sense of stewardship of nature. If these have greater weight within the ever-widening choice sets that people create for themselves—if equity, innovation and stewardship become central to what it means to live a good life—then human flourishing can happen alongside easing planetary pressures.”

Because, in the Anthropocene, it is essential to do away with stark distinctions between people and planet.

This time, the way forward is not only about expanding people’s capabilities and choices, but also enhancing their agency and ability to participate in decision-making, within a framework of universal values that allow us to become true stewards of our only home – planet Earth.

Posted in India

Independence Day 2020: Nothing to be happy about

I wrote my last Independence Day post from a hotel room in Singapore. And it was essentially a Requiem for my beloved country, adapted from Gurudev Tagore’s famous prayer.

From a distance, any sentient Indian would have known that something was deeply troubling the soul of India in August 2019 – a sense of foreboding and impending doom… and a great churning was in the offing. And that did come to pass. The CAA, NRC and NPR may have been the trigger, but the protests across the country and across all sections of society spoke of a much, much deeper malaise – of lost opportunities and the inevitability of failure. Of an uncertain future and an unchangeable past. Of love and hate and cuts and slashes in the social fabric. Of bleeding wounds and breaking hearts…

And then this happened… An exodus of biblical proportions as the migrant labourers, left stranded by the CORONA Lockdown, began their long journey home.

The Indian middle classes were shocked to the core. The seamless services that we city dwellers were so used to had vanished. The urban informal economy was stripped naked to reveal the odious exploitation of man by man. The poor, so long invisibilized,were made visible. And we were left shaking our heads and looking for reasons of where we went wrong.

It was then that I recalled something I had written in these pages in November 2014:

And here were my meanderings made flesh in this most brutal fashion. No writer with even an iota of sensitivity wishes to be vindicated in such a distressing way. Nor do I.

That was why I could not bring myself to put pen to tablet for such a long time.

But as these brave forgotten armies trudge back to the same satanic mills and construction sites, surely we too can find the courage to spread the word and record our fads and foibles for perpetuity.

Jai Hind!

Posted in India

Republic Day 2020 : Time for stocktaking

When I started this blog in November 2014, I wanted to make occasional assessments of how the incoming Government of India would deliver good governance – one of its major campaign promises.

And what better occasion than today, when a Republic celebrates a Constitution that has been in effect for 70 glorious years, which has transformed a post-colonial basket case into a proud member of the comity of nations, which binds together more ethnicities and diversities than any other nation-state on the planet, and where a vast swathe of the population is suddenly feeling so vulnerable that the eyes of the world are watching every move of its elected government.

So let’s begin with the UN Paradigm of good governance, and assess the Indian Government‘s performance objectively for each indicator, based upon reliable media reports and facts and data…

Good Governance Indicators Performance of Indian Government (2014-19) from media headlines Assessing Government Performance Remarks
Efficiency 355 Infrastructure projects with cost overrun of ₹3880 billion: Economic Times Nov 2019 FAIL INEFFICIENT
Effectiveness Demonetisation drive that cost 1.5 m jobs, failed to uncover black money: The Guardian August 2018 FAIL INEFFECTIVE
Participation Most schemes like SBA, Smart Cities, PMAY etc have not produced the desired results because their design, implementation and monitoring have been left entirely to bureaucrats and consultants with little or no public participation: Various Media Reports FAIL CENTRALIZED
Accountability Umpteen examples of corruption cases against politicians being dropped once they switch allegiance to the ruling party. BJP campaigners proudly claim their party is a ‘washing machine’ : HW News, The Wire Oct 2019 FAIL UNACCOUNTABLE
Responsiveness Not ONE senior minister deputed to discuss grievances with protesters, even after a month : All media reporting on Shaheen Bagh Protests, January 2020 FAIL UNRESPONSIVE
Transparency Right to Information Act modified to curtail its independence : Economic Times Oct 2019 FAIL OPAQUE
Inclusion Citizenship Amendment Act perceived as exclusionary and discriminatory : UN Human Rights Commission FAIL MAJORITARIAN
Consensus Orientation Governance by brute majority, not consensus building : Parliamentary Proceedings FAIL MONOLITHIC
Rule of Law Disregard for Rule of Law in crushing protest and dissent : Media Reports from UP, JMI, AMU, JNU : December 2019 FAIL AGGRESSIVE
Equity Heightened disparity : Oxfam Report on growing disparity in India: ‘… economic inequality is being added to a society that is already fractured along the lines of caste, religion, region and gender.’ January 2020 FAIL DISCRIMINATORY

Sadly, this means that we have ended up with a government that is monolithic, majoritarian, aggressive, and discriminatory in attitude, unaccountable, opaque and unresponsive in action, centralized in its decision making,  and incompetent and ineffective in its outcomes. Certainly not good governance…

Happy Republic Day all the same.