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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Public Corruption in India As the Triumph of Market Over State

Today is Indian Independence Day, an anniversary that contains memories of great promise but also terrible butchery.

I once wrote a letter to my college newspaper that compared the opinions of my high-caste family members on Muslims and the "reservations" system in India (which was affirmative action for lower-castes and religious minorities) to the complaints of white people about affirmative action - and therefore, wasn't it interesting how we were all having the same debates? Okay, I may have said it a little more like an undergraduate nearing peak activism.

This prompted a very irritated response from an Indian (Indian-Indian, not Indian-American) grad student noting (correctly) that I knew nothing about actually living in India, and by the way, the differences in India were not racial, and therefore there was no comparison to be made. Can you tell I'm still bitter the paper wouldn't print my reply?

In my last post, I made a different, but also not-crazy, comparison between the labor rights of freed slaves during Reconstruction, after the Civil War, and those of undocumented workers today. Both sets of workers exist in a space that only partially overlaps with the coverage area of society's legal protections, so their actual experience of those rights depends almost entirely on the willingness of those empowered to intercede on their behalf to do so.

Of course, this is often true for low-wage workers and people in poverty generally. The difference is one of degree, not kind. But definitionally, both undocumented workers and freedmen are (or were) a legally distinct class, with different rights than the rest of the population. Whatever spectrum of dislocation-from-rights exists, they anchor the far end of it.

As viewers of Oscar-worthy cinema know well, the dislocation of slum dwellers in India - who are almost uniformly low-caste or religious minorities - is so extreme that it also includes physical separation from the infrastructure of Indian society (itself no great shakes). The dislocation of the slums is at such remove from "civil" society that the value of others interceding in affairs there is more often than not a negative one.

Indians of all classes - but slum dwellers most of all - would likely get a good chuckle from Reagan's joke about the nine most terrifying words in the English language being "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, a brilliant work of narrative non-fiction that came out of an even more brilliant ethnographic research project in a "single, unexceptional slum" of 335 huts adjacent to the Mumbai airport, is replete with examples of this terror.

I credit witnessing from an early age the epic, incomprehensible squalor of India's slums, which contain about half of the population of its largest urban areas, for my ability to always be grateful for my life in the United States. Boo's work allowed me to place some actual human beings in this frame, with more information about their lives than I ever got from the dude I once negotiated with over a cable-TV connection to my grandmother's house (ah, those summer trips to India).

From the perspectives of the slum dwellers in her book, public institutions are "bazaars," like all the others they must navigate to buy what they need to live. The people who comprise these entities, rather than serve their ostensible non-market missions like, say, the public welfare or justice, are engaged in transactions for individual material gain, like everyone else.

This leads to anecdote after anecdote of policemen fabricating evidence to raise the price of the bribe needed to drop a criminal case, doctors requesting thousands of rupees to certify that a criminal defendant is young enough to be treated as a juvenile, and teachers opening the school doors only on days when the inspector comes around to check on them. Buy a desi a drink and many such stories can pour forth.

When called on it (probably in some cases by the invisible, but not actually nonexistent, narrator), the public officials in question uniformly defended themselves by pointing out that they were just trying to earn a sufficient living for their own families. There is simply not enough to go around for them to hold their official duties above this basic requirement that the market makes of them. Lindblom refers to this as the "particular kind of contribution - a marketable one" that all adults must make, or perish.

The commenter to my last post pointed out that the Freedmen's Bureau agents were often no better. "Who watches the watchmen?" is a foundational question of governance (although I first learned the phrase from Alan Moore). The conservative answer (as I understand it) is that there should not be watchmen, or at least, as few as possible, and that will solve the issue of rights conclusively. I have a hard time envisioning how that would have worked for the freedmen, and similar difficulty in applying that principle to the people who presently dwell at (or beyond) our modern frontier of rights.

Posted by Raja Raghunath on August 15, 2012 at 10:39 AM | Permalink


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