2011 India Reflections: Gender Gap and Corruption

The Lok Saba in New Delhi

As is my wont, after each trip to India, I try to record my most prominent observations.  I’ve been back in Canada for more than a week now, and am still jetlagged and catching up on work.

As I write this, both CBC and BBC radio are broadcasting features on India.  BBC had a special on the various types of corruption that are endemic across all levels of Indian society.  And CBC has a brief special on a topic I know a tiny bit about, as it abuts my field of expertise: the Indian demographic gender gap.

Wit regard to the latter, many parts of India (predominantly the North) are following China’s demographic trap: generations of sex selection bias against girls has resulted in a bride shortage.  From a feminist perspective, it’s offensive that the dialectic is being phrased as a crisis for men.  From a demographic perspective, it’s interesting to predict the manners in which this gap will manifest upon society.

An acquaintance of mine, Dr Prabhat Jha of the University of Toronto, is the author of a new study in the Lancet that is making the news: Trends in selective abortions in India…

Some have theorized that a shortage of women will mean an increase in women’s power.  Other’s have predicted that it will mean a greater commodification of women.  The “burden” of dowries may be reduced, as brides become more desirable. Interestingly, I am told that we are not seeing young men going abroad to seek wives; they are more likely to cross caste, class and generational lines.

Additionally, we are supposedly seeing a re-investment in the quality of lives of the eldest sons alone.  That is, efforts are made to find spouses for the eldest son; the remaining sons are left to their own devices.  So rather than conceptualizing this phenomenon as the glorification of boys, I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s the glorification of eldest boys.

It’s worth pointing out that the China and India cases are different.  In China, it’s the result of the One Child Policy.  In India, it’s entrenched within the culture of the nation.  Now, there’s no denying that the shortage of girls is troubling for moral, political, social and economic reasons.  At the same time, it’s the fastest way to reduce the populations of the world’s two most populous nations.  But economic wherewithal is still affected in very large part by population size.  So where this all ends up, nobody knows.  Sex selection is not just a phenomenon of India and China, but is prevalent across many countries.

In a future blog post, I’ll try to develop this topic further.

The second theme is corruption.  It’s almost a joke that India’s sole constant is its corruption.  We take it for granted.  While we were in Delhi, “spiritual leader” Baba Ramdev was threatening to start a hunger strike (Satyagraha) in protest against governmental corruption.  I’m not sure what qualifies Ramdev as a spiritual leader, beyond his orange robes; but there’s no denying that he attracted thousands of supporters across the nation, many of whom showed up in Delhi to take part in the hunger strike.

I was surprised to learn that the Satyagraha made news in the West, as well.  Adam and I tried to get to the Turkman gates to watch the protest, but no taxi driver would take us there…  Probably for the best, because the police ended up raiding the site and driving out all the assembled protestors. But the issue is not off the Indian front pages.  As India matures into a global economic and cultural leader, I think it will be corruption that must be the first dinosaur to fall.

Lastly, one observation that still percolates across all of modern India is hierarchy.  We all know of the caste system.  It’s technically illegal, or at least illegal to apply in any formal context.  Yet, the desire to create classes of people is strong in India.  It’s why Western tourists, however horrified they might be by India’s crowdedness, pollution and poverty, are nonetheless privileged to receive extraordinary service and deference.

It’s one thing to see private business exercise their need to reward status.  It’s quite another to see taxpayer-funded institutions do it.

Example: the passport control line at the airport.  There’s actually a first class line at passport control.  Think about that for a second.  Passport control has nothing to do with the airlines, or even the airport.  It’s a government-run, supposedly objective process for assessing the quality and intent of individuals entering and leaving the country.  Yet, if you happened to pay an airline some extra money for a more expensive seat, you get to wait in a much shorter passport control line when you arrive.

This is yet another aspect of Indian society that must –and will- change as India (or at least India’s middle class) enter’s the ranks of the world’s economic and democratic leaders.

Okay, my shoulder is killing me.  Got more to say, but I have to stop typing now!

Here are the photos from the most recent trip.

Congrats to all my students who are convocating today!