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Privacy for the Poor

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            In an era where the civil society debates erosion of privacy due to social media like Facebook or massive government programs like Aadhaar, it feels almost surreal to travel through Himachal Pradesh and see homes tagged with their poverty status. This photograph, taken from the road, shows that the family living in this dwelling is classified as being “Below Poverty Line,”, Mr. Om Prakash, son of Shankar Datt lives in this home and his family consists of four people.  I happened to observe his lovely teenage daughter dressed in her school uniform setting out for school and wondered how she feels to have “Below Poverty Line” tattooed on her identity.

            World Bank economists Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey carried out experiments in Indian villages and found that children who were identified as being dalit had lower performance on academic tests than the same children before this identification was carried out. Their findings are consistent with the large quantity of research on labeling which suggests that labeling individuals with characteristics that are perceived negatively or reflects an underprivileged background tends to stigmatize them and may well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

             Do I, a passer-by, really need to know that Mr. Om Prakash is poor and hence, eligible for (and presumably receiving) government assistance? Even more importantly, does his daughter really need her friends to know this? This is not a uniquely Himachal phenomenon. The “Below Poverty Line” lists are meant to be displayed and verified in Panchayat Bhawan, local government office. In many cases, they are even available online.  Ostensibly this is to ensure that no undeserving person manages to appropriate government benefits. However, little attention is paid to preserving the privacy and dignity of these economically disadvantaged families. It is almost as if the poor don’t deserve any dignity!

Designing Surveys for a Diverse Society

            Recently I ended up in a debate with a friend about survey administration in India. He was horrified to realize that we allowed our interviewers to administer survey questions by substituting local terminology as needed. He worried about the errors being introduced by interviewers as they translated on the fly and suggested all instruments should be translated. I tried to explain that we translate the instruments in 12 different Indian languages but there is so much local variation in language, often between neighboring districts, that it is impossible to undertake translations that capture these variations. Census of India lists 50 dialects in Hindi alone.

            His answer was that with rising education standard language is sure to become more prevalent and instead of interviewer translating the Hindi questionnaire in Braj Bhasha in Mathura district,  one can just use Khari Boli (standard Hindi). Having done fieldwork in Mathura, all I could say was that the educated respondents will understand Khari Boli but the rest will be scratching their heads about what these strange interviewers are asking.

            This discussion has led me to reflect on the challenges of designing surveys that balance a variety of biases and errors and get as close to the lived realities of our respondents as possible. In survey methodological discourse, these differences are often characterized by differences between standardized surveys and conversational surveys.

            This is a complex problem in any setting, linguistic and cultural diversity of India poses additional difficulties. Even identifying the nature of the beast facing us is sometimes difficult, let alone estimating the magnitude of errors.

            Interviewer Errors: The greatest fear of any survey designer is that interviewers will not ask the questions in a standardized fashion, making comparisons across respondents difficult. When the interviewer tries to substitute a local word for family planning, is she translating correctly or is she referring to family limitation, leaving out spacing methods? Moreover, when respondents don’t understand a question, standard methodology would prohibit interviewers from providing any explanation and just ask the respondent to answer the questions as they understand it. However, if we allow interviewers to deviate from the standard questionnaire, will they then bias the response?

            Comprehension Errors: The other side of the coin, which has received very little attention, has to do with comprehension errors. Standardized surveys force interviewers to read out questions exactly as written with no clarification. This forces the respondents to try to judge what the questions mean and if they ask for clarification, the standard response is, “whatever it means to you.” Studies have shown that the nature of response depends on whether interviewers are allowed to provide clarificatory answers. For complicated questions about sexual behavior, it is not surprising that clarification makes a difference.  However, even for simpler concepts like hours of work, once the workers are not in standardized work situations, conversational interviews provide very different results from standardized interviews.

            I find it difficult to tell anyone how many hours I work in a week. If you asked me how many hours I spend in my university office, that is easy. However, does the time I am spending right now writing this blog, curled up on my couch count? What about the time I spend internet browsing while hiding in a corner during faculty meetings? Many workers have unique situations, this includes women simultaneously raising chickens and children and domestic workers residing on premises with highly permeable boundary between work and personal time. It would be hard for them to identify their work hours without some guidelines.

             Frederick Conrad and Michael Schober have conducted a series of experiments where they find that both standardized and flexible interviewing produce high levels of accuracy when respondents have no doubts about how concepts in a question map onto their circumstances. However, flexible interviewing produces higher response accuracy in cases where respondents are unsure about these mappings. They also studied the amount of error introduced by interviewer flexibility and found it to be relatively small.

            My strange experiences with questionnaire design for India Human Development Survey (IHDS) has taught me that what is common knowledge and what is not is hard to know a priori. Widely used survey questions from World Value Survey, “How much confidence do you have in the government” produced puzzled counter questions in our interviews, “What do you mean, confidence about what?” Even in World Value Survey, Indian respondents, particularly those with low levels of education, have greater difficulty responding to questions about confidence in institutions. Whereas less than 2% of the respondents in other countries (e.g. United States, Germany and Peru) were unable to answer the question about confidence in government, in India almost 10% responded “Don’t know”. In contrast, complex and potentially sensitive question like, “Does anyone in your household practice untouchability?” was crystal clear and few respondents had trouble answering it. Untouchability is clearly something almost all Indians seem to understand; confidence in institutions seems not to be an easy concept for Indian respondents with low levels of education.

            Cultural Constraints: It is hard enough to develop a rapport with rural respondents as an urban, educated interviewer, being handcuffed by a standard questionnaire is even worse. When my mother, who was raised in South Gujarat became a gynecologist in a tiny town in Saurashtra, barely a couple of hundred kilometers away from where she was raised, initially she couldn’t understand who her patients referred to when they would say “Your brother wants me to deliver at home,” or “Your brother is busy now but will buy my medicines tomorrow.” Finally, she figured out that women who almost never referred to their husbands by name, also found it very awkward to say the phrase 'my husband'. Creating a fictive kinship and referring to their husbands as 'your brother' was their normal mode of conversation. I also find it much easier to ask about bhaisab (brother) and bhabhiji (sister-in-law) instead of ‘your husband’ and ‘your wife’ in rural areas. No such camouflage is needed among urban professionals. This is of course a trivial example but think about asking about menstruation and sexual relations without using locally acceptable terms!

Research Needs:

            When beset by competing considerations, the standard response of social scientists is to conduct experiments to examine the magnitude of various biases. However, few such experiments have been conducted in India that test the role of interviewer flexibility in making interviewes more comprehensible to speakers of different dialects. How difficult it is for someone speaking Awadhi or Bhojpuri to understand standard Hindi? If they were administered a questionnaire in standard Hindi, would it increase the interview length? How would it affect completion rate or quality of response?  This would be a highly fruitful area of investigation for future research.

             

This Strange Land of Ours

NCAER's Handloom Census found that nearly half the handlooms in India are located in North-East.

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          As the daylight started streaming past my curtains in a Guwahati hotel, I groggily lifted my head to notice with shock that it was barely 4:30 am. In Delhi I have never been subjected to daybreak so early.  This should have been my first warning about how different the North East is from the rest of the India.  Most of us never realize that even time zones in India are tailored to the center and living with a single time zone poses interesting challenges to distant parts of the nation.

            My friend Alaka Sarma casually mentioned that the North-East shares only 22 km connection with “India” while the border with the neighbouring nations is several thousand kilometers long. She might have a point there. One feels a palpable difference in the culture and the rhythm of life between Assam and the Hindi speaking heartland. But I am not sure if this difference is any more than the difference between Haryana and Tamil Nadu.  In Haryana a couple can be killed for marrying with the same Gotra, mythical patrilineal descent through one of the vedic rishis. In Tamil Nadu marrying one’s maternal uncle barely raises an eyebrow.  

            What sets North-East apart is not the difference but our incomprehension of this difference.  I remember Mr. Sharma telling us about the Handloom Census conducted by NCAER where sample size exploded because every home boasted of a handloom for personal use. With the exception of Assam, North-East is one of the most educated regions of the country with very low infant mortality rate and yet, few industries exist and lack of employment sometimes drives young people to “India”, who often return home after feeling isolated and marginalized in a society which has no comprehension of North-Eastern culture or geography.

Kaziranga

            Few Indians visit North-East, possibly because it is off the pilgrimage route. It boasts of incredible national parks but they are hard to get to and many areas require inner line permits to visit. Ten percent of the Five Year Plan expenditure is supposed to be set-aside for North-East but if it is really being used, we have no idea where it is going. Moreover, distance as well as regulations have constrained industrial development in these areas.  A desire to protect the rights of the indigenous people has limited the ability of people from outside to settle in many parts of the North-East. A reasonable regulation that is meant to protect the tiny North-Eastern population from being overrun by migrants but one that further isolates the region.

            I don’t know how we can bridge this chasm but perhaps learning about North-Eastern history and culture would be a good starting point. Sadly, I doubt that 90% of the Indians can identify where Arunachal Pradesh lies or which language is spoken in Tripura!

Doing Gender

The IHDS documents little correlation between gender segregation within the household (particularly common in Hindu families) or between practicing ghunghat/purdah/hijab and women’s empowerment within the household.


      I finally gave in and used my dupatta to cover my head. For a whole year of fieldwork I have been resisting explicit and implicit pressure to put sindoor in my hair (UP), wear toe-rings (Mathura), don saree as my daily wear or fish out my gold earrings and necklace (Tamil Nadu). But as we headed out for fieldwork in Srinagar and every single one of our female interviewers turned up wearing hijab, burqua or at least dupatta as a head covering, I caved and followed suit.  

      This brought to mind the research on gender performance that I have been doing with a couple of young colleagues Lester Andrist and Gheda Temsah. Our research based on IHDS-I has shown virtually no correlation between “doing gender” through activities such as covering one’s head or face and women’s empowerment within the household. Kashmir was an interesting example.  Our household interviews revealed young women with great educational ambitions casually donning hijab and matriarchs with dominant personality dressed in traditional Kashmiri clothing and headgear. 

      However, the impact of gender norms on public behaviors and access to public spaces is a different story.  When I travelled through Egypt with my eleven year son, we were both struck by the way in which waiters would inevitably hand him the bill. He was thrilled to be treated as an adult and I was exasperated. But traveling with even a miniature male affords more respectability than traveling alone. Staying in business hotels in India is quite disconcerting. As long as I travel with my research team, we stay in relatively cheap hotels costing Rs. 1200-1500 (USD25-30) and are perfectly comfortable. But when I am alone, this is very difficult.  I am often uncomfortable eating in hotel restaurant and end up ordering room service but even this is not easy as waiters start scanning out my room to get a handle on my respectability. So I often end up staying in higher end hotels with wait staff who are more used to single women travelers. Younger women colleagues have told me that while on business travel, a single glass of wine is enough to brand them in the eyes of male colleagues as modern women who may be open to dalliance. 

      Doing gender is not limited to women. Male colleagues are also constantly trying to navigate difficult terrain. I remember a time some years ago when a senior colleague in and international organization in Thailand was worried about cultural suitability of an expat young female researcher’s attire. He waited until a senior woman colleague (in this case, yours truly) came to Thailand to find an intermediary to communicate this information.  While I totally understand his restraint, sadly it deprived this young woman of much needed mentoring. 

     A few weeks ago Hema Ravichandar wrote a very interesting column on gender in business setting in India.  While noting the safety concerns of women employees and their families she notes some of the familiar solutions such as cut-off times beyond which female employees are not supposed to work and requirement of taxi arrangements for women employees when they work overtime, she notes, `…a well-meaning solution, when institutionalized, can actually end up discriminating against the very group it is intended to protect. A time cut-off for women team members and the harried manager battling tight budgets and tighter deadlines wails, “Oh please don’t assign a lady to this assignment. It is a tough one and I don’t want to get blasted by my bosses on why I have a woman working late.”’


3-June 2012

Separated by Barbed Wire

Machine gun toting military and police personnel, barricades and barbed wires dominate Srinagar panorama. I am told this is nothing compared to a few years ago. It is hard for me to imagine!

      When I spoke to Kashmiri friends, they would always talk about “India”, a reference I found disconcerting.  It was not until I was leaving Srinagar that I truly appreciated the gulf between Kashmir and the rest of India. 

      Getting to airport was like traveling through no-man’s-land. In 30 years of traveling across several continents, the only time I have experienced something similar is in the Middle East.  Getting on to a plane in Srinagar was an amalgam of  crossing the border of Syria and Lebanon in a car and trying to persuade Israeli security forces that I and my preteen sons meant no harm to anyone and they should let me get on the plane at Tel Aviv airport. 

      Here are the hurdles between our hotel in Srinagar and the airport gate:

About a mile from airport lie security outposts complete with barbed wire and machine gun toting soldiers. Only ticketed passengers and taxi drivers can pass. My bags were screened, I was frisked and the car was screened. 

At the airport the luggage was screened, as were my handbags. 

After checking in and getting my boarding pass, I passed through the usual security check  where they screened my handbags and I was frisked once again.

Then they made me empty out all contents of my handbag and purse. It is pretty embarrassing what one’s purse contains but the security guard couldn’t care less. He did make me turn on my computer and camera to be sure I was not camouflaging some explosives. 

Then I had to go and identify my checked in bag in a mountain of luggage. I am going to sell my black bag and buy a flowery pink bag in case I have to do this again.

A machine gun toting guard is standing near the door to be sure my hand luggage contains stamped tag, the proof that someone has already gone through my bag. 

       When boarding began, I thought deliverance was at hand. Wrong, a guard motioned me for a final round of body frisking and handbag tag check. This must be the penalty of leaving paradise. No other reason can explain this level of suspicion “inside” a country!

27-May 2012

Informally Formal

Since job inheritance is often limited to male family members, this is one of the avenues through which women’s access to factory jobs may be limited.

     It was the oddest conversation. A 60-year-old matriarch in Ahmedabad explained to me her inheritance philosophy. The oldest son had inherited his father’s job so the youngest should get the flat. That way they would both get something. There is nothing striking about this division of family wealth --- that is, until I realized what this wealth consisted of. The job in question is a janitorial job in the state government; the flat is government servant quarters.  How on earth did a government job and the residence that comes with the job become private property to be inherited?

    Nirupamaben is not unreasonable in her expectation; she has history to back her up. Her husband’s parents were sweepers in state government and when the father-in-law died, his position was given to her husband; when the mother-in-law died, her position was given to her husband’s younger brother.  When Nirupamaben’s husband passed away, her eldest son took over his job.  She has lived in this particular government colony for the past 40 years. The home was first assigned to her father-in-law, then her husband, and now her eldest son in entitled to the same quarters. But by informal family arrangement, the younger son will take over the quarters and the older one, who is the real government servant, will find something else. 

     In recent years, the state government has begun to frown upon this practice – often called compassionate employment, but it continues in many departments. Private sector is not immune to it either. As Samita Sen notes, “Since inception, large scale industry has depended on recruitment through myriad social networks based on kin, caste and regional affiliations.  Such a ‘system’ became staple in large-scale industries by the end of the nineteenth century.  Over time the ‘informal’ channels have been institutionalised. Given the slow growth rate of organised sector and the tight labour market, recruitment itself is fairly sluggish.  There is almost no direct recruitment now.  Recruitment takes place either through union channels or by nomination.  The latter indicates the right of retiring workers to ‘nominate’ a successor.  If a worker dies while in service, their ‘heirs’ replace them.  This ‘nomination’ is sometimes auctioned by retiring workers to non-kin candidates on the basis of the highest bid.  Attempts to prevent such practices have led to the re-entrenchment of the ‘family’ in recruitment considerations.  In some units, union and employers have agreed to restrict nomination to a ‘son’ or a ‘son-in-law’.”(Sen 2001) 

      Vast quantities of literature has noted ways in which family social class affects educational outcomes and thereby earning potential of children (Arrow et al. 2000; Bourdieu and Passeron 1990)  but this blatant privatization of public and private formal sector employment has received very little attention in the literature.  These are not elite jobs; those are governed by formal recruitment procedures. But in a country where casual daily employment dominates and only 22% of the male and 9% of the female workers receive monthly salary, any job that provides a stable monthly salary is an inheritance worth having. 

     It is surprising that this private capture of formal sector resources has received so little attention!

REFERENCES:

Arrow, Kenneth , Bowles, Samuel, and Drlauf, Steven (eds.) (2000), Meritocracy and Economic Ineqaulity (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean Claude (1990), Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, trans. Richard Nice (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage).

Sen, Samita (2001), Gender and class : women in Indian industry, 1920-1990. Noida: V.V. Giri National Labour Institute.

10-May 2012

Twilight World of Kolaveri Di

        


              As soon as I entered the village and heard the latest Tanglish youtube sensation Why This Kolaveri Di blaring from the loudspeaker I realized that I was in a different world from the U.P. and Bihar villages I was used to.  About 40 Km from Madurai, I was in a Tamil village that defied description.  Open sewers, Coconut plantations and paddy fields and colourful temples in every courtyard coexisted with a Western Union station ready to receive money from abroad,  a large bus from St. Joseph’s High School picking up and dropping children and a spanking new Panchayat Bhawan (local government office). Cars and motorcycles were parked haphazardly in street corners with small grocery shops dotting various corners of the village. Not being able to read Tamil boards, I was dependent on my colleagues to translate the boards but I counted at least 3 agricultural co-operative societies of various ilk.  

              This changing face of Tamil Nadu is visible in many statistics. With 44 percent of the population being urban, Tamil Nadu was one the most urbanized state in the country in 2001; this trend has only accelerated and by 2011, 48 percent of the state’s population lives in an urban area. But these statistics are highly deceptive.  Rural transformation in Tamil Nadu is striking.  In many villages people commute to nearby towns for non-agricultural work and even villages boast of growing non-agricultural employment. No wonder IHDS found that  47% of the rural males in Tamil Nadu work outside the farm sector, one of the highest in the country. 

              This transformation of the state that spawned legions of rural studies and has shaped Indian anthropological mindset for several generations reflects the growing spatial divide in India.  It is not that rural U.P. and Bihar are stuck in a time warp. The north Indian jajmani system documented by Weiser is a thing of past and rural Bihar has begun to dominate UPSC examinations. But the changes in South, particularly Tamil Nadu, are far deeper and far more rapid.  They are seen in roads, primary health centres and schools. But most importantly, they are seen in a mindset that sees nothing wrong with Kolavery Di blasting away next to a temple.  There is something exhilarating about witnessing this twilight moment of Tamil Nadu rural landscape. Next census will see Tamil Nadu past the tipping point where more than 50% of the population will be urban and if we are brave enough to undertake IHDS-III, this village I just visited will have been swallowed up by the ever expanding urban landscape.


This traditional cot made with rope and topped with a spring mattress seems like the epithet for the rural transformation in Tamil Nadu.


25-February 2012

My Fickle Heart

Percent respondents judged as being "confident"

State 
West Bengal86%
Tamil Nadu85%
Bihar81%
Madhya Pradesh79%
Karnataka77%
Haryana77%
Maharashtra, Goa74%
Jharkhand73%
Rajasthan73%
Kerala72%
Chhattisgarh69%
Andhra Pradesh66%
Uttar Pradesh64%
Jammu & Kashmir59%
Delhi58%
Orissa56%
Gujarat56%
Punjab50%
Himachal Pradesh50%
Uttarakhand44%
Northeast37%
Assam26%

         I must have a fickle heart. I am in love again, this time with West Bengal.  Last month’s passion Rajasthan seems a bit too vivid.  Bengal with its muted tones and bursts of greenery seems like a whiff of the bygone era. Of course having grown up with Sharatchandra and Bankimchandra novels, I was ready to fall in love before I landed at the Kolkata airport.  But really it was the taxi driver who gestured to me with an insouciant attitude to get into the taxi and find some place to stow my bag that won my heart as did the hotel desk clerk who handed me my key with full expectation that I will find a way of carrying my bag. 

          To my North Indian colleagues this comes as a rude shock; to me after the constant discomfort of people trying to carry my briefcase, it comes as a welcome relief. For someone who lives and breaths survey data, these impressionistic statements are odd. But I have come to realize that social stratification is so deeply ingrained that it seems to infuse even small gestures.  In Uttar Pradesh, young colleagues are horrified if I try to carry my briefcase.  In West Bengal no one expects anything else. In U.P. training hall, our interviewers would stand up every time some senior member of the training staff entered the room; in Punjab they barely bother to look up. 

          Having spent much of my life trying to document material basis of social stratification, I feel odd talking about social psychological aspect of social stratification but it would be silly to ignore the way in which social inequality is internalized. We had asked IHDS-I interviewers to rate the male and female respondents on their behavior with the interviewers and whether the respondent was confident in this interaction. Of course we recognize the dangers of such assessment. Does the respondent really lack confidence or is it simply the judgment of the interviewer who often comes from a socially and educational stronger vantage point? But regardless of where it stems from, it reflects how a representative of a formal system that is not a part of the respondent’s day-to-day life perceives the respondent. 

          The two graphs here present an interesting picture.  First, my impressionistic observation seems to be dead on at least as far as West Bengal is concerned. Male respondents in West Bengal are most likely to be judged as being confident by the interviewers, although Tamil Nadu and Bihar don’t seem far behind in swagger (oops I meant, confidence!).  Of course other state rankings don’t seem to quite match my personal impressions – possibly casting doubts on the validity of these observational data (or maybe on my perceptiveness!)

          Education helps increase self-confidence but it does not seem to be enough. Centuries of inequality can strip individuals of their self-confidence.  In a sensitive essay titled Passage to Adulthood: Perceptions from Below, Professor Sukhdeo Thorat writes about his early adulthood as a Mahar in a highly stratified village, 

“…. my opposition to discrimination was largely emotional, but it had another feature also: I was often not very confident about my actions. I used to feel that my feelings were partly right and partly wrong. When, for example, I avoided the dinner at the Sarpanch’s house, I was sure that I did not want to go, still I felt that there might be something wrong in refusing to join when the entire village was participating. This definite but uncertain state of mind was due to the fact that I did not understand the social questions in their entirety.”

     We also see it in interviewer evaluations respondents’ confidence by caste.  Education helps increase self confidence, or at least appearance of self confidence to interviewers, but forward caste respondents are judged to be more “confident” than OBC, Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim respondents at almost all levels of education under class 12.  Educated or not, a member of forward castes is judged to have plenty of confidence, but it seems to take education improve the self-confidence (or perception thereof) for the marginalized groups. 

     IHDS-II builds on this rudimentary assessment to include more interesting questions about social interactions, directly from the respondent’s vantage point.  Young respondents aged 15-18 are asked several questions about their interactions with people holding generational power and strangers. These include:

When a neighbour or some other older person asks you to do a task at a time when you are really busy finishing up your own work, do you tell them politely that you can't do this task at the moment or try to oblige them even if your own work suffers?

When someone breaks in front of you in a line, do you ask them to go to the back of the line or do you let it be?

[FOR GIRLS] If some men/man harass/es you or (eve) teases you on the street, do you usually speak up or ignore it? 

[FOR BOYS] When you see some girl being harassed or being (eve) teased by some man/men on the street. Do you try to stop them or ignore it?

     I can’t wait to see the results. But until the IHDS-II data are ready for analysis, I am still charmed by my West Bengal taxi driver, at least until IHDS-II starts off in another state and I fall in love all over again!

5-January 2012

Whom Stars Have Put Together, Let No Man Put Asunder

     According to newspapers, National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) is against allowing home tests for HIV/AIDS.  The rationale, as presented by Times of India (Nov. 22, 2011) is based on worries that testing must be accompanied by counseling without which HIV positive individuals may be more likely to be at risk for depression and suicide.  

     It is a great idea to couple testing and counseling but I had a hard time resonating to this ideal scenario. I think I am warped by the IHDS fieldwork.  We have been asking parents about their expectation about their children’s marriage.  IHDS-I found that 95% of the married women ages 15-49 had arranged marriage, although their agreement and consent was normally obtained. Hence, it made sense to ask parents about their thoughts regarding marriage arrangements. I wanted to know if parents were thinking about HIV testing before marriage. As I started crafting these questions, I ran into major resistance. 

     One of our IHDS staff members is right now in the throes of arranging his daughter’s wedding. He was too polite to say it but it is clear he thought I was in the La La land asking about premarital HIV testing. So we went into one of our interminable discussions about marriage customs. He claimed that he had tried asking one prospective groom about seeing a copy of his degree and the guy and his family were so offended that the negotiations broke down. In such conditions who can ask for blood test? In his opinion that would be a surefire way of scaring off the groom.  So we have compromised on two questions. First we ask parents if in their opinion it is important to do blood test to determine the health of the prospective bride or groom and then we ask them if they expect to do this when their child marrieds.  Since I know my colleague is into serious horoscope matching, I decided we will ask similar questions about need for horoscope matching and expectations for horoscope matching before a match is fixed. 

     Lo and behold, pretty much most of our pretest data and early results suggest everyone thinks horoscope matching is vital and of course they plan to do it when their child’s marriage is fixed. But no one seems to find it important to focus on health risks to their child and have no expectation that it will be done.  Hmmm… never mind the counseling, let us start recruiting astrologers and have them offer a combined service consisting of horoscope matching and blood tests!

23-November 2011

I have and ID Therefore I am

     These days I have become somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to large government programs and India’s Unique Identification Program is the mother of larger government programs. Providing unique identification number (somewhat like a U.S. Social Security Number) linked to photographs, fingerprints and iris scans to 1.2 billion Indians in over 600,000 villages and cities are taking technology deployment to an unprecedented scale. So I was intrigued when I came upon an Aadhar (new name for the Unique ID program) in a Rajasthan village. 

     The camp was set up in the Panchayat Bhawan with some banners announcing its presence. When I walked in, the village Pradhan was outside checking out ration cards and voter IDs of villagers who had come to get their Aadhar card and inside several computer stations were set up with cameras and fingerprint scanners as well as a printer. As I was watching, an elderly villager in colorful headgear walked in and handed his ration card to the Pradhan took check, who cheerfully waved him inside. He was asked to sit at the table and his Aadhar enrollment took a few motherinutes.  He looked rather bewildered at the fingerprint scanner but the young technician was very helpful and Ramlal Gupta walked out waving a printout of his enrollment form at the end. 

     I was intrigued about why he had taken the trouble to come and enroll for Aaadhar card and asked him about it. His answer was simple, “I don’t know if this card is going to be useful or not but every time government makes some cards and I don’t get them, I discover later I should have. I never finished the paperwork for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) card and now I really regret it. So I thought I should do it since it only takes a little time.”

     Ramlalji is wise. I am also beginning to discover that these vague pieces of paper shape people’s lives in strange ways.  For example, India Human Development Survey documents that Dalit  and Adivasi children typically enter school about six months later than forward caste Hindu children. There is little systematic research that can tell us why but I am convinced that lack of birth certificates and proof of residence could be one of the reasons.  Every time I speak to a government school principal they say very simply that as long as their papers are in order we want to make sure all children attend school. But when pressed, stories of children from the nearby hamlets being told to go to another school or children of migrant laborers being sent back start emerging. 

     Birth certificate is a particularly dicey affair. Since about 50% of the deliveries take place at home, if a birth is registered within 90 days, birth certificate is easy. Otherwise an application needs to be made and the Gramsabha meetings where birth certificates are discussed are often held infrequently, a couple of times a year.  So it is not surprising that the National Family Health Survey – III documents that only 41% of children under 5 have their births registered and only 26% have birth certificates; Dalit (24%)  and Adivasi (18%) children are far less likely to have birth certificates than forward castes and others (40%)  as are rural children (20%) compared to urban (42%).  The attached graph also shows large differences by mother’s education.  While Right to Education Act notes that no child will be denied admission because of a lack of birth certificate, the alternative documents that are acceptable in place of a birth certificate are also onerous.

     I can’t see the point of turning a child away from school because he or she has no birth certificate, or making a family run around to get letter from a hospital or a nurse midwife. Does a child not exist because she does not have appropriate proof of age or proof of residence? Why should the government schools care whether a child from Rampur attends Deopur school since Indian school funding is not tied to local tax revenues? If domestic strife drives Deepa’s mother to live in her natal home or Karim belongs to a family of brick makers who migrate seasonally in search of work with no proof of residence papers do these children not deserve education?

     These are longer philosophical questions. But as long as these ubiquitous demands for identity and residence proofs remain pervasive, people will flock to get their Aaadhar cards. 

15-November 2011


© Sonalde Desai 2012