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India rough cut

Dipankar Gupta’s book is a sociological version of The Rough Guide to India. Serious academics might find it a tad too ‘journalistic’ but it seems to work for the average intelligent reader, writes Vipul Mudgal.

books Updated: Jul 04, 2009 23:10 IST
Vipul Mudgal

The Caged Phoenix: Can India Fly?
Dipankar Gupta
Penguin | rs 550 | pp 322

Dipankar Gupta’s book is a sociological version of The Rough Guide to India. Serious academics might find it a tad too ‘journalistic’ but it seems to work for the average intelligent reader. The book is impious — even provocative — and cleverly structured around some irksome issues. The tone is blunt, the prose elegant, and the arguments range from the defensive to the subversive.

For a change, the urbane anthropologist is out to lambast one and all, his tribe and my tribe included. There are barbs for the business elite and the lounge economist, but the real disdain is set aside for the politician as a class and the ‘second-hand orientalist’ who hawks quick-fix sociology.

Gupta backs up his charges with insight and first-hand data gathered from distant boroughs.

He pokes us all, the incorrigible Indian offenders that is, for our arrogance and prejudices, but it is a pity that the great Indian babu almost escapes Gupta’s hawk- eye.

The book addresses all those who agonise over India’s future but are unconvinced by the answers given. Why is India so poor? Why are our cities so filthy? Is caste our main identity? Is development a race issue? How rural is rural India?

The list goes on. The task is to examine if India is ready to take off on its journey to dignity and development for all. It is both sceptical and appreciative of the Western model, though versions of alternative modernity crop up every now and then.

Conventional wisdom says that the real industrial growth is fuelled by widespread migration to cities. The sceptics believe that work in sweatshops and life in urban slums can be worse than the miseries of rural poverty.

Gupta’s take: an average worker is more ‘forward looking’ and ‘risk taking’ but a typical informal enterprise (read sweatshop) owner is short- sighted, risk averse and incapable of spotting his interest beyond cheap labour. Gupta has evidence and field surveys to prove this point. He is for a cocktail of infrastructure, labour laws, contract farming and consumer-driven corporate social responsibility.

The JNU don follows the migrants closely. He takes you to the carpet weavers of Bhadoi and the badlands of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, to the fields of Punjab, into the homes of untouchables, and on a tour of the villages of our imagination in Bimal Roy’s Do Beegha Zameen, Benegal’s Nishant and Manoj Kumar’s Upkar. Not all cultural inputs fit into the framework of farm crisis but they do impart a unique repertoire to the scholarship involved.

The good news is that the caste system is in trouble and its ‘time-tested’ calculus is not working. The caste and political performances did not tally in UP, Bihar and Maharashtra elections that the author studied. Even Scheduled Caste ‘strongholds’ did not vote in predictable ways in UP, in spite of Mayawati. The diagnosis is that the caste system as political mobilisation is collapsing even though caste identities stay strong. This has coincided with the patrons of the past becoming poorer, SC/ ST coming up through helpful job quotas, and the OBC reservation putting the clock back by benefitting the better off.

Those sceptical of the Western prescription of rolling back the state for communitarian agenda would find the counterpoints persuasive. ‘Is this how the liberal democracy established itself in the West?’ His remedy: we need more rather than less governance and aggressive State commitment in education, health, infrastructure and housing.

The book is going to irk most politicians and some economists. But then, since everything is connected to everything else, you can’t leave the economy for the economist and politics for the politician, just as you can’t leave the national security to a bunch of army generals.

(Vipul Mudgal works on media and rural livelihoods at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)