On Janaagraha’s response to FoV’s critique of the ASICS survey

The Hindu had published Fields of View’s critique of the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (ASICS report) by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. We had critiqued the survey at two levels — the methodology used and the broader framing. The critique of the methodology examined the survey design, the questionnaire, and the ranking. The critique of the framing looked at the broader frame the survey subscribed to, that of looking as a ‘city as a service’.

Janaagraha wrote a response to the critique that was recently published in The Hindu. Overall, Janaagraha’s response is more of an iteration of what the ASICS report does (which has already been explained in the report) instead of a substantive argument responding to FoV’s critique. In the post below, we provide our argument as to why that is the case by examining Janaagraha’s response in its entirety. The post is divided into five parts, and every part begins with Janaagraha’s response in italics and our argument follows.

Part 1

“Life in India’s cities is an urban nightmare that we just cannot wake up from. Potholed roads, garbage fires, flooding, traffic congestion, air pollution are daily bugbears that our citizens have been facing for decades, clearly indicating a systemic failure of governance in our cities. Fixing urban governance is key to fixing our cities, and hence the importance of diagnosing and measuring what’s broken in our governance. ASICS aims to do just that. ASICS is an objective evaluation of 23 Indian cities across 20 States on 89 questions, covering 150 parameters, and 3,900 points of investigation. It takes a systemic, data-driven approach towards urban governance. ASICS is a diagnostic tool indicating the health of urban governance systems in a city and therefore, its ability to deliver good quality of life in the medium to long term. The evaluation is based on the ‘City-Systems’ framework consisting of four distinct but inter-related components — spatial planning, municipal capacities (both human and financial), political leadership, and lastly transparency, accountability and participation. ASICS is based on the premise that fixing systems across all these components are critical to city governance.”

The beginning of Janaagraha’s response is about what the ASICS report does; there is no new information, either to clarify the methodology or the framing.

Part 2 

“One of the significant criticisms raised by the authors was that ASICS argues for ‘city as a service’ model. ASICS see quality of life comprising of two distinct but inter-related aspects — ‘quality of urban infrastructure and services’ and ‘quality of citizenship’. Thus ASICS is not about evaluating the relationship between the city and the citizen as one of service provider-client, but rather about the extent of ownership and empowerment of both the city government and the citizens in the running of the city. ASICS evaluates the extent of devolution and empowerment of our Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and strength of formal institutional platforms, such as ward committees and area sabhas, for citizens to participate and actively engage with their government in line with the provisions of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA). ASICS looks at parameters such as mayoral tenure, powers of the council over staffing practices, voter turnout in municipal elections, and extent of functional devolution in practice. It examines availability of information on civic services, service levels, financial information, status of public works, revenue collections, spending, etc , all of which would enable citizens to gain a better understanding of the functioning of the ULB and make their engagement more objective and meaningful.”

Janaagraha claims that the ASICS report does not argue for a ‘city as a service’ model, contrary to what FoV’s critique claimed. The evidence Janaagraha offers is that the ASICS report evaluates the quality of citizenship too, and not just quality of infrastructure. There are two aspects to our response:

 

  1. As we mentioned in the critique, when engaging with the primary question of ‘Who is a citizen?’, there is an inherently limited notion of citizenship that the survey espouses. For example, to gauge citizen participation, there are questions on online information access. This question, by its very conception, excludes wide swathes of citizens who do not have access to online resources. Incidentally, even though mobile phone penetration is high in India, smart phone is not. In addition, cities need to contend with multiple literacy-levels, and diverse languages. Even a preliminary engagement with the complexity of citizenship, and the associated challenge for cities would mean the parameters used for evaluation have to be expanded.
  2. Though quality of citizenship is said to be a criteria on which ASICS evaluates cities, the way the criteria is conceived demonstrates that it is still within the ‘city as a service’ frame. Citizen participation does not translate to just providing feedback about services, which is what a customer does. The relationship of a citizen to the city is that of responsibility, of ownership, and of being a guardian and a partner of the city’s future.

Part 3

“ASICS is based on an analysis of relevant laws, policy documents and websites of city & State governments. One may argue about the unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation. But given India’s quasi-federal governance structure, where governance of cities lies in the domain of the State governments, the quality of urban governance is also a commentary on the quality of State legislation. As the report clearly indicates, to deliver good quality of life in urban India, reforms are required across all levels of government — Centre, State and the city government, with the king’s share to be undertaken by the State governments.”

Above is Janaagraha’s response to what the critique has pointed out as the ‘unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation’. Janaagraha agrees that India has a quasi-federal governance structure. Knowing this, we are puzzled as to the rationale for designing a survey that penalises cities for something that is not under their control, by their very admission. It is, again, conceptually unfair and therefore, not well designed.

Here is a snapshot from just one section showing different questions that evaluate the cities, while the power lies with the State.

A snapshot of the issues with questions in ASICS Survey by Janaagraha

Question No. in Evaluation CriteriaQuestionIssue
1Is there a provision for a state spatial planning board which is mandated with planning policies and reforms for the state, and is the final approving authority for regional and municipal SDPs ?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2Does the Act require 3 levels of SDPs (master plans) for metropolitan cities: regional, municipal and ward(s) /localTC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2a, 2b, 2c, 3, 3a, 3b, 3c, 4, 5, 6-TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
7a, 7b-Plans are made by the relevant city development authority, to score the ULB (elected city council) on the timeline and validity is irrelevant
8a, 8b, 8c-Whereas 8 looks at a "clear decentralised procedure" for approval of plans, 8a, and 8b go onto scoring the ULB based on the state's actions.
9, 10TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
11Do the SDPs reflect a stated articulation of future vision and development priorities?The stated objective is to look at "objective" parameters, whereas in the evaluation of this question, the ULBs are evaluated on a score of 10 based on if the SDP mentions metrics for the objectives. Also, these plans are created by the respective city development authority/agency.
12Do the SDPs at each level, integrate the plans and priorities of various sectoral public departments and agencies?
14Are there provisions in the act for modifications to notified SDPs?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
15Has an MPC been constituted?The state constitutes the MPC, why is the ULB being scored on this point? Under Article 243ZE, Constitution of India

The ‘Town and Country Planning Act’ is a law passed by State governments. Hence, using its features as a marker for a city’s governance and functional processes is unfair. It may be argued that documenting and evaluating such absences of this law (or certain features of it) will push cities to negotiate with the state government in order to improve their urban governance. However, this assumes a high level of city-state government synergy, and more importantly, an inherent value in strengthening the law. When a city such as Bangalore, which receives high focus from the state government, has been unable to push changes to the state law to improve its urban planning or governance, it would be a monumental task for other cities, which include non-capital cities, to press for the same. Further, Town and Country Planning Acts have mostly enabled urban planning to take place in a top-down approach through city development authorities in direct contravention of the spirit of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.

Part 4

“As the authors have rightly pointed out, lack of capacities in urban local bodies is a huge hurdle which affects institutional aspects such as maintenance of accounts, budget preparation, audits, and aspects of service delivery such as approval of building plans, environment protection, road design etc. ASICS believes in fixing the City-Systems and identifies that gaps in financial and human capacity is a significant handicap in the ability of ULBs to deliver better quality of life to citizens in a sustainable manner. The author’s assertion that the ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB appears to be a misreading of the recommendations. Firstly, ASICS suggests exploring options such as ‘outsourcing’ only in functions such as revenue collection where the lack of adequate number of field staff has severely impacted the ability of the ULBs to collect their dues. States like Jharkhand have demonstrated that engaging professional agencies through a transparent tendering process can help ULBs to plug the personnel gaps due to significant vacancies in Accounts and Revenue departments. States and ULBs must explore a gamut of options such as building a professional Municipal Cadre, facilitating lateral hires, to address the debilitating levels of vacancies in key departments.”

 At the outset, we wish to state that we are in full agreement that personnel gaps, and skill-based gaps have to be filled.

We argue it is not a misreading when our critique states that ‘ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB’. In the recommendations section of the ASICS report (page 17 & 18 at http://janaagraha.org/asics/report/ASICS-report-2017-fin.pdf), “outsourcing” is mentioned five times as potential ways to fix the problem under ‘Urban Capacities & Resources’. One could argue that it is ‘only’ five out of seventeen recommendations, and therefore not the primary motive. Unfortunately, as researchers we do place these five recommendations in perspective with the other recommendations and the survey questions. A few questions that arise are, are these recommendations only possible because of this ‘objective’ survey or have these recommendations been made in the past (10, 20 or 30 years) by other groups without the benefit of such an ‘objective’ study? Are the other recommendations feasible and under what conditions? If these recommendations are implemented and the status quo does not change? Would the fall back then be to ‘outsource’?

In the spirit of debate and engagement, it is wonderful when a response leads to further questions just as it is futile if the state of debate does not progress.

Image 1 – A screenshot of the recommendations in the ASICS report, with all the recommendations to outsource highlighted.

Part 5

“The authors have evocatively questioned the choice of benchmark cities in the survey — London, New York and Johannesburg. The benchmark cities were chosen to evaluate the institutional and governance mechanisms within a democratic framework which enabled these cities to provide the high standards of services and infrastructure to be recognised as global hubs of opportunity and talent. Cities are economic growth drivers, innovation hubs, job creators and providers of social, cultural and educational opportunities. It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity. These are qualities that most cities aspire to have, and these cities are desired destination to live, work and play because of the underlying strong institutions, policies and processes by which they are governed. ASICS is not about pushing Indian cities to become a London or New York, rather it suggests looking at these cities and seeing what Indian cities can learn from them. ASICS underscores the importance of systemic approach to solving urban India’s challenges and recommends that all of us must collectively do what is necessary to strengthen our ULBs as institutions, and the systems and processes of their governance.”

Janaagraha’s response still does not provide any reasoning as to why “looking at these cities” (these cities being London, New York, and Johannesberg) to learn from them is more useful than looking at any other city – Buenos Aires, or Beijing. The reason we questioned this choice of the three cities as any form of benchmark continues to be the following:

“For instance, in Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking of 2017, London is nowhere in the first 10 or even 20; its ranking is 40. In The Economist’s World’s Most Liveable cities, both London and New York are not in the top 10. The recent edition of the UN Habitat’s biannual ‘State of World Cities’ report says that ‘the most unequal cities in the region, and probably the world, are in South Africa’. If it is not about quality of life, what do London, New York, and Johannesburg stand for?”

The response from Janaagraha is: “It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity.” (emphasis ours)

For starters, this claim has been disputed by Mercer’s, by The Econonmist and by UN Habitat. Moreover, as we argued in our critique, the budgetary inflows for Indian cities are limited as property tax is the only major source of revenue. Not only is this not true for London and New York, the budgetary and regulatory environment is also completely different. Consider this snapshot of London[1], New York[2], Mumbai[3], and Bangalore[4]:

Comparison of London, New York, Mumbai and Bangalore

ItemLondonNYCMumbaiBangalore
Population8.79 million (2016)8.55 million (2016)21.3 million (2016)11.5 million (2016)
Number employed by city council369,942(estd.)327,793 (2012)104000 (2017)18000 (2017)
Avg annual budget(last 3 years) US$31.5 billion (FY2014-2017)US$78.13 billion (FY2015-2018)US$4.9 billion (FY2015-2018)US$0.97 billion (FY2015-2018)
Sources of revenueRing-fenced education grants, Settlement funding assessment, council taxes, special and specific grants, HRAs, capital grants and receiptsBusiness taxes, capital IFA (Inter-fund agreements), Disallowance of Categorical Grants, Federal Categorical Grants, Miscellaneous Revenues, Other Categorical Grants, Other Taxes, Personal Income Tax,Real Property Tax, Sales Tax, State Categorical Grants, Unrestricted inter-governmental aidOctroi taxes and duty, property tax, various receipts, interests, grants, supervision charges, service charges, development chargesFees, fines, service charges, cesses, property taxes, recoveries, statutory deductions, GoI grants, GoK grants, interests
Avg exp on IT(LAST 3 YEARS) US$47.22 millionUS$515.4 millionUS$46 millionUS$160 million
Per capita (city council) employed0.042086689420.038338362570.0048826291080.001565217391
Per capita (city council) budget3583.6177479138.011696230.046948484.34782609

 

 

 

[1] http://ukpopulation2016.com/population-of-london-in-2016.htmlhttps://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.pagehttps://data.cityofnewyork.us/City-Government/Expense-All-Funds/am45-6syqhttp://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/downloads/pdf/misc/workforce_profile_report_12_30_2013.pdf, https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16MayorsCapitalSpendingPlan.pdfhttps://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16%20Final%20Budget.pdfhttp://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/images/londoncouncils/LGFrevenuefundingfinallargge.JPG, http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/4929http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Policy%20themes/Local%20government%20finance/Total_Funding_15-16_01_0.jpg.

[2] ibid

[3]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/citizen-services-likely-to-be-hit-as-bbmp-employees-set-to-protest-on-monday/articleshow/62973932.cms, http://bbmp.gov.in/documents/10180/2746234/Final+BBMP+Budget+Book+Revised+9-6-2017+-+Copy.pdf/377be30a-60e8-46de-89d8-6c4c67da8b53http://des.kar.nic.in/docs/Projected%20Population%202012-2021.pdfhttp://bbmp.gov.in/budgets.

[4]http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-41464636http://www.mcgm.gov.in/irj/go/km/docs/documents/MCGM%20Department%20List/Chief%20Accountant%20(Finance)/Budget/Budget%20Estimate%202017-2018/1.%20MC’s%20Speech/Budget%20A%2CB%2CG/ENGLISH%20SPEECH.pdfhttp://www.mcgm.gov.in/irj/go/km/docs/documents/MCGM%20Department%20List/Chief%20Accountant%20(Finance)/Budget/Budget%20Estimate%202015-2016/1.M.C’s%20Speech/English%20Speech%20Budget%20A,B,G.pdf.

[5] Appadurai, A. (1993). Number in the colonial imagination.

Dissident data – The Subject Matter(s) – Part 1

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. Here is the Part 1 of the second post. You can read the first post here

When I was in the field collecting data for my dissertation on domestic violence, my advisor, Mike, recommended that I write about my experiences every day. I was not very disciplined, so I would only do them every week. These were not technically field notes, but my own reflections on what I was experiencing when I was in the field. I decided to make them into letters that I sent every week to people who were interested in hearing from me. This is an entry:

I know I have glorified the process of data collection in previous letters. But it can be really hard… I sometimes get so angry I don’t know what to do with myself. The anger is fine.  But after a while, I feel myself getting a little cynical about the lives of the women I encounter. I remember feeling shocked at my own reaction in one interview when one woman (whose husband was not beating her) said that she was very happy with her husband. A voice in me said – yeah well, how long is that going to last? I realized immediately that I can’t think about the world that way, or I am not going to be a very happy person.  

I recently interviewed a woman whose story made me mad during the interview. I wanted to shout, scream, do something for this woman and do something to her mother-in-law. Usually, this anger hits me after I have finished with the interview and usually, I try and control myself when I am interviewing. But during this interview, I felt like screaming obscenities at the world and I don’t even know any good ones. Well, it passes. It always does.

What I didn’t realise then and am able to see so clearly now is that it doesn’t always pass. It stays, much longer than it should. These emotions of anger and helplessness were the first formative lessons in data collection that I learnt in the field, and in various forms, they have stayed with me ever since. These are the stories and lessons that I still go back to when I have to understand anything about oppression or violence, and about how the world is not tilted along the right axis for many people.

I brought these feelings to bear, to some degree, in my writing. When I wrote my case notes, I would bring a mental picture of the women I had been interviewing. By concentrating on her face, I would try to remember what she said and how she said it. Sometimes, this made the writing process very hard, because I would remember their faces flicker with emotions that I couldn’t even begin to name. I would remember the shuttering down of something dark and lightening up of something joyful. Somewhere in the middle was a story that I probably did not do justice to. And that feeling of impotence has survived all these years . . . that I could listen more, that if I could talk more, that if could do more, then it would all be better.

I remember thinking (with all of my feelings of inadequacy, cynicism, and anger) that the research that I was doing could not even begin to address the level of structural inequalities that I was seeing and recording. No amount of empathetic writing or theoretical understanding could take away the pain and hurt that the women I was interviewing were experiencing. It started to feel as though all of research is pointless, and the role of the researcher, even more so.

At the time, the very wise Mike told me – I can’t dwell on what isn’t, or I can never do anything with what is. I must admit, I didn’t quite understand it at the time. I was so lost in my own self-flagellation and my own navel-gazing that I didn’t get it. It was only years since that I understood that he was trying to tell me (at least) two things. First, the pain and anger I was feeling was an abstract one. It was on behalf of someone else and something else. It cannot be made mine, even if I tried. So, it had to be channelled into a more productive arena; it can be channelled into more empathy, for instance. Second, the feelings of frustration and impotence that I was experiencing are not the same as being self-reflective. These feelings of impotent guilt cannot (or perhaps, should not) be used to punish myself. It has to be channelled outward into asking questions of possibilities – What can be done? How do I do what I do best to make it better? How do I contribute? What can I change?

Over the years since that advice was given to me, what I have learnt is that these emotions that we take to and take from the field act as anchors. They make us empathetic, they make us accountable, and they make us human. Our knowledge of the complexities behind simple statements (of fact) comes from these complicated feelings we have towards and about those who have shared their lives (and data) with us. Any knowledge (or data) that we have derived from these interactions are, thus, almost always tinged with this emotional content. And this is really what I remember when I remember the lessons that I have learned in the field. So, no, these complicated feelings do not always pass. Perhaps, they shouldn’t.

Dissident Data – a new blog series

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. It is an idea that has been brewing awhile, and without much more ado, here it is, Niveditha’s first post introducing the series.

A long time ago, when I was working in an interdisciplinary lab, we organised a workshop to showcase our work. To prepare for the workshop, I was to give a colleague a brief description of the project that I was working on at that time. I handed her a five-page document describing everything about the project. We had just started working together, so she found it prudent to keep her shock and dismay to herself. Later, when the workshop was over, we had a chat about how useless it was to give her a five-page document for an infographic that she was trying to create. What I needed to give her, she said, was a story. I replied – but I don’t know how to tell stories. She said that that’s what I have been doing any way — my research is a story about data.

Those of us who are researchers (and some of us who are not) have to contend with various forms of data. If I may be permitted to generalise, the quantitative amongst us typically think of numbers and figures and graphs when we think of data, and the qualitative think through narratives and themes. But underneath it all, what we are trying to convey is a story that we see in our data that we think is important to understand our world better. This blog series is about unpacking the story that is hidden in our data, be it the trials and tribulations of contradictions within our data, or the euphoria of finding something unexpected.

I come from a qualitative feminist sociological tradition, so I work with a particular framework of feminist and anthropological methodologies that does not treat data as abstract. For me, all data – whether quantitative or qualitative – are relational and are produced by the specific socio-cultural and economic contexts in which the questions are framed and the researcher is located.

My advisor once told me that data doesn’t speak. It is not an animate object to have its own language. It exists because I have caused it to exist. It is a thing shaped by me, and can speak to only that which I see or which I allow others to see. It is moulded by the nature of my questions and the tonal voice in which I have asked these questions. Many researchers do not subscribe to this contention. Yet, I am sure that they also have had to confront the fundamental questions around the nature of data: How is data produced? What are the rules related to data collection? What kind of data is necessary to make an argument? What is to be done when data misbehaves?

Of course, there are tomes written by researchers of all disciplines trying to answer these questions. We simply have to google ‘epistemology’ to engage with any of these authors. This blog series will not revisit these themes and debates, although it will heavily draw upon them. Instead, this data blog series will engage with the relationship between the production of data and the presentation of it. It is about the personal journey that researchers take with our data in our quest for a better understanding of the world and how it works.

The rationale for documenting such a process is two-fold: (1) to lay bare the difficult decisions, dilemmas, and contradictions of data that we all encounter in our working and daily lives, and (2) to engage with the fundamental role that researchers and non-researchers have in the process of producing, analysing, and representing data. It is, in some ways, a space to engage with the myriad ways we submit to the authority of data, and to self-reflect on the implications of this submission.

This tentative mandate, however, is subject to change, as the series evolves. But for the next few blogs, authors, broadly defined as those who are producers and conveyers of data, will be drawing from their own to tell a story of their relationship with data.

Fields of View and IWI

In order to demonstrate the components and capabilities of the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI), Fields of View is planning on using it in a game as a policy design exercise. This computer supported game will simulate different scenarios, and will enable physical interaction among the participants. The game looks at different aspects of the IWI: interconnectedness of parameters, relating qualitative and quantitative parameters, different indices, and possibilities of change for the future.

The target audience of the game are undergraduate students of economics and sustainability studies, in addition to policy-makers. It is assumed that the participants understand the mechanism of national budgets, and can perform basic mathematical operations.

This game has been designed to complement traditional teaching methods. The learning objectives of the game are as follows:

  • Understanding the components that are used to calculate the IWI, and how it compares other development indices such as GDP, HDI, etc
  • Learning how changes in national policies can alter different indices, and what advantages the IWI offers in understanding these changes
  • Encouraging players to develop a futures orientation, and apply the same to shape real-life sustainable economic policies

In this case, the players will be asked to prepare a national budget for a given country—using their judgment based on the national indices (IWI, GDP, etc.) they’re given. Based on these standard development indicators, the players will determine a fiscal budget plan and basic monetary policy.

The game is divided into a briefing, gameplay, and debrief session. In the briefing session, participants will be given a survey to determine their decision-making preferences—which will give them some information about the socio-political context of that country. As part of the gameplay session, the players set national targets (ex. levels of employment, sustainability, poverty levels), and use preferred strategies to achieve them. The game proceeds in multiple rounds, wherein each round simulates one year of operation. The country’s economic prosperity (after each round) will then be published to the participants, and will be calculated using indicators like GDP, HDI, and IWI. Finally, the debrief session looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using different development indicators, and examines the ability of the IWI to reflect upon a country’s economic health.

The system dynamic model of the game can also be used as an interactive way of engaging players with the IWI. For example, an online interactive visualization could be developed for policymakers and students to see the effects of different policies on the future economy. The inputs and interventions will be based on data from the Inclusive Wealth Reports, and from information generated by the game.

Eventually, the IWI could become a more appropriate and comprehensive indicator than GDP or HDI to measure the sustainable development of an economy. But we have realized that this requires serious involvement of different types of audience, such as students, policymakers, politicians, educators, economists, and other such groups.

To draw audiences from different backgrounds to understand the IWI and explore the implications of planning with IWI, we are in the process of building a game called Levers of Change. All the players will be responsible for a country’s well-being, and will plan for investing in different forms of capital, such as the human, natural, and produced capital. Players should be able to balance their economic growth with sustainable development to achieve sustainable goals. The game will challenge players to plan accordingly to ensure global sustainability.

The game design process relies on the functions and indicators in the IWR 2014 report. IWI accounts the wealth of all major socio-economic and environmental parameters and is represented as an index through incorporating several complex statistical models and mathematical formulas. We are triangulating data of quantity and price of produced crops, permanent cropland and pastureland from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to calculate wealth of agricultural land. Similarly, we triangulated statistics on forest area, and stock of timber for all listed countries from FAO. We are also validating data on production, and reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas from US Energy Information administration to calculate the wealth of fossil fuels. We apply the similar procedure for the data on production, reserve, and price of all minerals from US Geological Survey to measure the wealth of minerals.

The most interesting part of the study is to calculate wealth of natural capital. Mathematical functions to calculate the wealth of different natural resources involve multiple numbers of independent variables, such as quantities or natural stock of resources, real prices, and rental prices. The major challenges in calculating natural capital are to identify all independent variables for the model and to validate units of all variables.

What is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children?

‘Zero Hunger’ is the second sustainable development goal, the first being no poverty. The key to achieving both these goals lies in ‘all people at all times having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food  that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’, which is how ‘food security’ is defined as. And what holds the key to food security is agriculture, on which around 40 per cent of our population directly depends on for their livelihood. Given that agriculture and food security are such key concerns, how is our Government planning for it, how much are we investing in it, and what does our union budget have to say about that? These were some of the questions tackled by Dr. Madhura Swaminathan, Professor at the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore, in her lecture on ‘Food security and agriculture: Implications of current policy and budget’. The lecture was organised by our neighbour in south Bangalore, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, as part their annual lecture series on budgets.

Even before going into issues of access, the first question that comes up when it comes to food security is do we have enough? Do we have sufficient food to feed a population of little more than a billion people? According to Dr. Madhura, up to the 90s the answer to that question was yes. The graph of food production she showed hovered above the line tracking our population growth. But after the 90s, the situation reversed, which is bad news for both sides — those who grow food and those who eat food.

How badly have the producers of food been affected? For starters, there is little data on income of producers, said Dr. Madhura. To address this paucity of data, a group of scholars including Dr. Madhura conducted detailed surveys of 5000 households in 22 villages as part of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI). From the income data collected, Dr. Madhura highlighted two observations — one of extreme inequality. In the same village there are farmers who earn around Rs. 29 lakh a year, and others who barely make do. The other was of what she termed as ‘negative income’, where what you earned was less than what you spent. A significant number of farmer households have negative incomes. This leads farmers to abandon farming entirely, which exacerbates the situation we have now where already the food we produce isn’t enough for us all to be food secure.

Why?

Why is agriculture not making profits for these small (less than 2 hectare holding size) and marginal (less than one hectare holding size) farmers? First is that the input costs (seeds, fertilisers, machinery, etc) have shot up, something that is particularly hard on the small and marginal farmers. Second, the Minimum Support Price set by the Government isn’t enough to compensate for the investments that have gone in.

What then is the Government doing?

Not nearly enough, said Dr. Madhura. Though newspaper headlines hailed an almost 94 per cent increase in Government spending on agriculture, she said the increase was the result of some deft statistical jugglery with ‘interest subvention’. When the Government gives banks money so that they can then lend to farmers (or any sector) at a reduced rate of interest, it is termed as ‘interest subvention’. The money allocated thus for interest subvention goes to the banks, and not to farmers directly. The amount Government allocates for interest subvention for agriculture was earlier not added to the agricultural budget, but this year it was. And the sum of Rs. 15,000 crore allocated to interest subvention accounts for the gigantic leap into agricultural acchedin. What happens if you remove that figure? What you the get is an increase of around Rs. 7000 crore, which would not have garnered the kind of headlines that the budget did. (For a detailed analysis of why the allocation ‘math for the agricultural sector in the budget doesn’t add up’, go here.)

If we take away the interest subvention, does the figures still indicate an increased spending in agriculture?

If you look at spending in agriculture as a percentage of GDP, in 2012-13, it was 0.3 and in 2016-17 it is again 0.3. Therefore, it isn’t a big difference from what has happened earlier.

But the interest subvention has been increased from Rs. 13,000 crore to Rs. 15,000 crore. Isn’t that a good thing?

Apparently not, said Dr. Madhura. As mentioned earlier, the money given for interest subvention goes to the banks and not the farmers. One study shows that most credit goes to urban and metropolitan banks rather than rural banks and is disbursed to either large farmers or even large corporates. For instance, if a soft drink company wants to put up an irrigation system, it would be eligible for a loan. Therefore, the small and marginal farmers, who are in dire need of timely and affordable credit, are not the main beneficiaries. (For more on how ‘rural’ is agricultural credit, go here. The op-ed piece draws from studies by the same authors Dr. Madhura referred to.)

In this scenario, what happens to people who need food? We are worse off than all our neighbours when it comes to malnutrition figures, and so there is no question that there are a large number of desperate people who need immediate attention.

What are we doing for nearly 30 per cent of India’s children who are underweight? (For more on the ‘overlooked malnutrition crisis in India’, go here.)

Not much, according to Dr. Madhura. There has been a gradual policy shift toward targeted schemes, where the Government ‘targets’ who needs attention, rather than go toward universal food security. Now targeting has two kinds of errors – errors of inclusion and exclusion. If those who don’t need subsidised food get it, it is an error of inclusion. If those who need it don’t get it, it is an error of exclusion. The focus has been on errors of inclusion, because you can estimate financially what that error costs you. On the other hand, the error of exclusion is tricky.

For example, what is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children?

What happens when people who need the food don’t get it? Malnutrition, disease, inter-generational issues — all these are intangibles, and therefore difficult to put a cost on. Numbers can prove to be tyrannical. Easily quantifiable, something that can be plotted in graphs and charts is tangible, and something that evades that kind of easy quantification becomes an almost ephemeral entity. If there is no calculable cost to not giving children food they need, then it becomes intangible, a non-headline grabbing entity that fades into and falls off the margins.

Before asking the question of what is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children, the, more crucial question becomes, should we know the answer to that to make us do something about it?

These old bones will never lie. Will they?

Imagine you are standing at the excavated gravesite of an ancient warrior. The grave is filled with spears, bows, and other weapons, proud possessions of the warrior and the skeletal remains. Close your eyes and imagine this Viking warrior.

Now tell me – did you think of a man or a woman?

Till about a few decades ago, if you had asked most archaeologists, they would have said, mmm, a man. For the hunter-gatherer is a man, the woman stays at home, gives birth, minds the chickens, and does other things that history isn’t particularly concerned with. Not only those archaeologists’ point of view is patriarchal, but they also did not have access to the secrets bones can tell, if only you know what to look for.

On the other hand, if you are trained in understanding bones and are critical of making unsubstantiated assumptions about gender, then you may look at the grave, examine the skeleton, and surmise on the basis of available evidence that it could be a woman. Akshay Sarathi, a graduate student of anthropology (archaeology) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of those who is trained in and practises this new way of seeing. In his talk ‘Archaeology of gender’ organized by the Center for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) on Tuesday September 01, 2015, he spoke about new methods of decoding fragments from the past and the dangers of preconceived assumptions and gender biases colouring many a finding.

Citing different examples, Sarathi explained the difficulties in assigning gender and gender-based reasoning purely on archaeological evidence. For instance, if there is a site that shows shell-fish catching in a historic era, do we assume that men did the fishing? Or women? If there are three skeletons, where the man’s hand is on the woman’s groin, what do you make of it? Your guess is as good as mine, he said.

On the other hand, there are instances where there are texts and other sources that provide insights on the basis of which interpretations can be made. He cited the example of the Ishtar, who he described as a ‘transgressive’ goddess. There are multiple copies of a text that has survived, of Ishtar’s journey to hell and back. Such textual sources and other material help in interpreting available archaeological evidence, but it isn’t always the case that you would find such supporting evidence for theories.

Queen_of_the_Night_(Babylon) (1)

(By Hispalois (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sarathi spoke about how the study of bones gives additional insights, previously not accessible to archaeologists who were not trained in that area. He cited the example of a mass burial of women, considered to be ‘virgin sacrifices’, but on examining the bones, you find that all the women show signs of having given birth, a pitting observed in their pelvic bones, which would have had to bear the stress of childbirth, debunking the ‘virgin’ theory.

But it is not that you can exactly tell whether the person was a male or a female by studying the bones, because that understanding is supported by statistics, available data, and interpretations, all of which can only provide a tentative understanding in many cases.

Sarathi’s talk touched upon that tentativeness in understanding history, which is usually obfuscated in certain ‘definitive’ versions of history. There is a pressure to sound certain, even if the evidence available can only give you a tentative hold on possible interpretations. Self-reflexivity was another theme, being able to critically examine your own biases and prejudices constantly, something everyone, be it in the sciences or social sciences, needs to practice. The tentativeness and self-reflexivity go hand in hand.

I was struck by how similar the situation is in the media, be it news media or popular media. There is a pressure to sound certain, provide ‘definitive’ accounts, and trade in certitudes, even though you know you only have a tentative understanding. Self-reflexivity is mandatory, but it is hard to put into practice. Where does this pressure for sounding certain come from? Is it because it is easier to work with simple narratives, rather than ones filled with ifs and buts? Or is it because a simple narrative is the one most suited for maximum control?

Overall, the talk was funny, thought-provoking, and accessible, even to someone with no formal training in either archaeology or gender. Now am off to figure out how I can get my hands on ‘Breaking and Entering the Ecosystem – gender, class, and faction steal the show’ by Elizabeth Brumifel, something Sarathi said was a must-read to understand this new way of seeing, even though, he sighed, the author has a few archaic ideas about women and weaving.

A human centric look at electricity consumption and design towards a “Smart Campus”

It was almost a year ago when we concluded a project named “The Smart Campus Simulation Tool”. We are looking to release the simulation tool to open source. In this post, we wanted to explore the problem context which informed our design.

To us a Smart Campus represented a socio-technical system that would be “malleable” enough for us to achieve our objectives. We approached it to be a socio-technical system, the technology (the adaptive sensor based control system) has to work with the social context of an academic institute. At the end of the day, people have to accept and be willing to make changes to their lifestyles.

We wanted to look at the issue of electricity consumption for the IIIT-Bangalore. The institute had invested in a fair amount of energy saving equipment such as solar panels and more efficient water heating systems. But, they were not clear about the eventual savings in energy, the electricity consumption patterns or if there was a strategy to reduce the overall consumption in the campus.

An overview of campus simulation model.
An overview of campus simulation model.

Consumption of electricity is a difficult notion to comprehend and convey. For example, when a switch is thrown, does one wonder where the electricity is generated from? It may so happen that a forest is being cleared in Chattisgarh so that you may be able to spend an extra hour on Xbox. Furthermore, we have an inherent expectation (if you grow up with some privilege,) that electricity “has” to flow if a switch is turned on. People who have no access to electricity are vulnerable in many ways to the extent that their social mobility may suffer due to lack of electricity. People who have intermittent access or pay huge bills are also cautions about consumption. Nevertheless, we seldom question the source of generation. 

Causal relationships like the one above between your consumption and environmental degradation are common and are uncomfortable (but true). Such examples try to guilt you into changing your consumption behaviour. However, it is not an easy to make lifestyle changes nor is it easy to ponder on the utility before doing everyday mundane tasks. Responsible use of electricity requires changes to behavioural and cultural practices as well as upgrades to the technical systems around us. Looking at both social and technological aspects was the cornerstone of our approach. 

We tried to look at the campus as a location which enables different people to achieve their academic goals. People in the campus perform various activities that allow them to achieve this goal. We looked at activities that consumed electricity. We then developed a simulation tool that assumed the use of sensor -based control and behavioural modification to try and check if a technology-assisted behavioural change was possible. The results of the simulation would be the base to design a serious game. The game in conjunction with sensor-based control systems would address both social and technological aspects of the issue.

Our simulation mainly consists of:

  1. a model for generating activities (explanation for what this activity means below) for various actors present on the campus,
  2. an agent based model for minimising electricity usage while keeping the comfort level of individuals at an acceptable level.

We define an activity as any action that an individual takes during the course of one’s day in the campus. A good way to model an activity is to collect detailed information using “energy dairies”. As a small academic institute, the campus had limited types of actors. We therefore chose to use a survey-based approach to collect information on daily routines. We conducted a survey to understand various daily routines for all the individuals on the campus. We also conducted interviews with some of the administrative and housekeeping staff.  We used this information to create a model for the generation of activities for various actors on the campus.

The smart campus simulation setup.
The smart campus simulation setup.

To model the “smart” systems of the campus, we created a control mechanism based on autonomous agents trying to collectively bring down the electricity consumption of the campus while keeping track of inhabitant’s comfort levels. We modelled the rooms and work areas as the autonomous agents. Each such agent was responsible for the operation of various devices that would consume electricity. It was then tasked with the objectives of minimising usage of certain devices by:

  1. negotiating the electricity consumption with other rooms (agents).
  2. Directing uses to use more common areas.
  3. Restricting when possible, the use of high power consumption devices such as air-conditioners and elevators.

In all of the above cases the it is assumed that the individual can override the agents, thus, keeping the human at the centre of the system.  (This also allows us to collect information on what sort of activities will not be compromised in the name of energy savings. ) However, a denial from the system to allow the operation of devices resulted in a decrease in the satisfaction of the inhabitants. The agents were asked to minimise the use of electricity with as little discomfort as possible for the inhabitants.

Once the models were ready we created a simulation tool and calibrated it based on the data collected by the campus for over a year on a daily basis. We could then play out scenarios such as:

  • What happens when we want to aggressively minimise consumption
  • or, what happens when the comfort for the inhabitant is paramount and
  • finally, what happens when we set a electricity consumption target for ourselves?
Calibration of the simulation, Real Data: Red, Simulated Data: Blue
Calibration of the simulation, Real Data: Red, Simulated Data: Blue

 

Results from using a aggressive savings scenario.
Results from using an aggressive savings scenario

 

Results from allowing a maximum savings scenario.
Results from allowing a maximum savings scenario
Results from using a popular choice for devices, scenario.
Results from using a popular choice for devices, scenario

It was very interesting for us to see the results and present it to the inhabitants of the campus. We are now trying to work with students to create and deploy the sensor systems at the campus. We see a potential for extending this tool to include larger spatial/network levels such as a neighbourhood or a set of neighbourhoods as opposed to a campus. We are also looking at including multiple sources of electricity, given that decentralised power and micro-grids can become popular. Furthermore, we are also exploring the possibility to include other resources such as water consumption and sewage as well into the analysis. For a more detailed description to the tool and to some other people doing similar work please refer to our paper “Krishna, Harsha, Onkar Hoysala, Krishna G. Murali, Bharath M. Palavalli, and Eswaran Subrahmanian. “Modelling technology, policy and behaviour to manage electricity consumption.” In Humanitarian Technology Conference (R10-HTC), 2014 IEEE Region 10, pp. 40-45. IEEE, 2014.”. We hope to produce and publish more results soon. In the meantime please free to check our tool at:The Smart Campus Simulation Tool

Research in Play 1 – talk by Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram

Be it mohalla sabhas or mygov.in, community participation is in. But the question emerges, who can take part in these conversations, who does not, and what about those who cannot?

The idea of citizen engagement rests on the idea of citizen – someone who enjoys legitimacy, by having certain rights and responsibilities. This legitimacy is linked to legal sanction too – when you go to vote you have an id-card, something that proclaims your right to have your finger inked.

What about those who don’t have ration cards because they do not have a home or they live in spaces that are not valid in the eyes of law? How can they too be citizens, how can they too participate in these discussions of policy and law that affect their lives?

DSC04724Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk on ‘Community participation: panacea or pipe dream’ spurred the audience to debate these questions. She is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and is currently in India on a senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies for her project ‘Can the urban poor speak’. Her fieldwork in four non-notified slums in Delhi and slums in Bangalore focused on how people in the slums fight for certain services such as sanitation, and how community participation is used in different ways to pressure and be heard in order to achieve those services.

DSC04736

Even though for conceptual ease, slums are seen as a monolithic category, if you take into account the specifics related to services such as sanitation and water and land tenure, there are many differences between Delhi and Bangalore.

For instance in one slum researched by Dr. Soundarya, women in the slum faced safety issues caused by young men in their own slum. On the other hand, during conversations we had with women’s activists researching for the Convers(t)ation project, we were told that in slums in Bangalore, there is a sense of protecting ‘our women’. In both the cases, there is a patriarchal culture at play but in different ways. And understanding those differences becomes crucial in understanding the context – something that can eventually help in creating meaningful policy.

Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk was part of the ‘Research in Play’ series at FoV, where we host talks, discussions, and workshops at the intersection of theory and practice.

Is there an Indian way of thinking? Part 1

In a conversation recently, we were discussing about technology in the Indian context. Does context matter? Why wouldn’t technology designed and developed elsewhere fit here too? Don’t people’s minds work the same way everywhere? Is human cognition then like classical physics – it doesn’t matter whether Newton sat in Kammanahalli or Kuala Lumpur, the mango would still land on his head. Or is human cognition something that’s also shaped by the context we live in?

A North American professor who studied ‘human thought’, the underlying assumption being that there is something universal called human thought was challenged by his Chinese student who said, you think in lines and I think in circles. This led the professor, Richard Nisbett to examine how culture and context influences thought, and it is this journey that is captured in ‘Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.’

Nisbett starts by explaining the philosophical roots of different ideas and concepts that shape thought in Asian and Western societies, and one of the key differences is the focus on the individual in Western societies.

What’s interesting is the way Nisbett accounts for the focus on the individual, by invoking reduction. According to Nisbett, the Greeks ‘invented’ nature. He explains that the Greeks said anything that’s outside of you is nature, and in doing so they clearly drew boundaries between you and nature. Thus you could ‘study’ nature as it is outside of you and you are not connected to it, you cannot influence the study in any way, the philosophical basis of classical science.

Nisbett contrasts Aristotle and Confucius to bring out the differences between the two cultures. The interconnectedness that it is an integral part of the Confucian culture and how it differs from the Greek culture that relies on isolating objects and studying them in that isolation is brought out through different examples. It gets more interesting when Nisbett shows how reduction versus interconnectedness starts affecting other aspects, including language, attention and perception, causal inference, science and mathematics, organization of knowledge, and reasoning. Language, attention and perception, causal inference, science and mathematics, organization of knowledge, and reasoning – all these different threads are themselves interconnected, and in the book Nisbett illustrates these differences using examples, and drawing from firsthand research.

Reductionist_approaches_versus_interconnectedness

For instance, when it comes to language, apparently in Japanese the word for “I” is rarely used. “I” is a trans-contextual idea of self. It does not change whether you are talking to your parents or to your lover. On the other hand, in Japanese the words used to refer to one’s own self depend on the context. Similarly, consider the level of abstraction. In Chinese, instead of saying the object is far, you would say it is like viewing a fire from across the river. Instead of white, you would say like a rabbit’s fur or a swan’s wing.

By teasing out different threads, Nisbett’s book ends on a hopeful note, with a call for convergence — a blending of Western and Asian ways of thought, a best of both worlds vision of things to come.

In the introduction, Nisbett acknowledges that the word ‘Asian’ contains within it a host of different cultures, and that a broadbrush to interpret Asian in a particular way was used in the book. In some sense it is almost recursive — how much you abstract out of a geographical context.

In the spirit of Nisbett’s book, what if we were to push that abstraction and unpack different layers of what it is to be ‘Asian’. For instance,what would Nisbett’s book be like if the Indian context was taken into account?

We plan to explore that in the next blogposts.

Keeping the Feminist Lens “On”

“. . . in many ways is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. . .”  

C. Wright Mills

 

Feminists often describe their intuitive and instinctive understanding of feminist lessons as a ‘light bulb going off’ in their heads. It is as if all the vague feelings, thoughts, and concepts they have been dealing with suddenly get crystallized into a theory and a collective understanding of the world around them. We learn to see things, relationships, and the world differently, or “at a slant”, as a friend would say.  But what has been true in my experience and a few others that I have spoken to is that once the light bulb comes on, it doesn’t always stay on.  We quickly learnt that this new perspective –this new lens – was all too easy to lose. To keep it on, constantly, was going to require a tremendous commitment on our part. We have to climb the steep ladder to reach the bulb for it to be turned on, again and again. And after a while, it gets easier to make the journey, but you do have to make the effort every time.

 

 

But why is this lens so easy to lose?

 

The answer to this question is simple. Structures such as class, race, gender, religion b(l)ind us in some unique positions. It is from these (subject) positions that our worldviews are formed, structured, codified, and fossilised. We do not always understand our social privileges and positions ‘objectively’ because the world that we understand is translated and navigated from these subject positions. In simpler terms, we cannot be outside of ourselves to understand our relations with the world, as the world is interacting and reacting to the relations that we have formed with the world. It is a continuously reinforced relationship and it is one that we form and are formed by. And this reinforcement is a very powerful one.

 

We all function within it, and it is extremely difficult to see in the normal interaction of life. It is only visible at the breaks and at disruptions of social mores and social relationships. Consequently, it is surprisingly easy to illustrate. Next time, you are talking to someone from the opposite gender, stand 5 cm closer than you normally do. Watch the person’s reaction – if they move, move with them. And if they don’t react, move closer (Caveat: please do this with someone you are comfortable with!). You’ll notice that there is an unwritten code that we all follow on the proper distance that an individual stands apart from another, and while it varies dramatically by culture, all societies have them – a ‘proper’ distance. Likewise, our social lives are wrought with invisible social rules and norms that are so pervasive and hidden that only the violation of them makes them visible. So, a newly acquired lens can often be lost in the normalcy of living one’s life, in the normalcy of interaction, conversations, and relationships that do not necessarily reinforce, engage with and to some extent, even accept this new knowledge or perspective.

 

Also, interaction with social systems is rarely based on a singular identity or system. For example, in any social situation that concerns the family, the gender AND age of the person matter. In fact, age coupled with gender coupled with marital status coupled with family and caste customs etc etc. – otherwise known as intersectionality of identities and systems – can often create myriad rules that are understood implicitly, but rarely articulated.  For example, young Indian women, interacting with their families, rarely raise their voice against elders in the family, and are rarely taken seriously, even if they do. It might be true for young men as well, but men can get away with violations of this code much more easily than women can. So, if you are aware of these social rules that silence women systematically, and you are tired of the silence, will you take the risk of going against everything you have been taught, and still speak up – perhaps, loudly or rudely – against those whom you have been taught to respect your whole life? This is an individual question, and each of us must answer it, and therein lies our own commitment to the form of feminism we have to practice. The truth of the matter is that in order to put this new knowledge into actual practice, we are not necessarily fighting with strangers, with ‘society’, or even with our families. We are fighting with our own selves – our value systems, our core beliefs, our understanding of the world that feels very ingrained (and therefore, ‘natural’).

 

The internal struggle is also made tougher by the problem of visibility. In order to fight it constantly, one has to actually see it, feel it, and hold onto it.  We have to keep examining our actions, our habits, our modes of thinking to understand why they work the way they do. And self-reflexivity, self-reflectivity, self-supervision, self-analysis, self-critique – all of these are so easy to ignore, because the social norms that we grew up with are so comfortable, familiar, and safe. For example, why do we think that a clean house is a reflection of ourselves? Why do we think about career moves that account for future families? Why do we keep quiet when we are truly truly angry? The answers are not always palatable, and we don’t always change our behavior in accordance to our changing thought process. But that struggle has been and is constant.

 

 

But why make such an effort? Why try at all?

 

I can speak for only myself, here.  Feminists have different reasons to make the commitment, and this might be one of the reasons why feminism tends to be deeply personal. We have our own specific reason of why we are committed, and what shape that commitment takes. For me, the reason why I fight to keep the feminist lens on is: once you gain a perspective . . . once you gain a glimpse into another way of seeing the world, you don’t want to let go. My experience of the world has been richer for it, and it has helped me to see the social world in a decidedly different way.

 

For one thing, it has made me more empathetic.  I slowly realized that having another lens allowed me a way to understand other people’s worlds. When you start to understand the effect of social rules and norms on yourself and on social groups, you start to look beyond a person’s individual action or behavior to make connections to the larger social structure, norms, and narratives. So, instead of merely disengaging or resisting social rules and norms, I started to look for reasons why these rules and norms exist, what purpose they serve, and how individuals use them. The more I looked, the more I realized that despite my initial understanding (frankly, cynicism), individuals do use their agency (loosely translated as ‘will’) to engage with these social rules and norms. While a lot of us don’t always know the manner in which social rules act upon us, we also resist, acquiesce, and reinforce them in many interesting ways.

 

Of course, this sounds a little bit like a rainbows, sparklers, and unicorns kind of world. . .but this empathy, this new understanding, and (to some extent) acceptance of human behavior is not an easy thing to do either. C Wright Mills when he talked about the sociological imagination described it as a magnificent lesson and a terrible one. In his famous piece on sociological imagination, he extorted those of us who wanted to enter the field of sociology to possess a level of gumption, because the lessons you learn in sociology (and to the extent that it is relevant to feminism) are not comfortable or comforting. It requires a critical inner eye that questions, that looks within, that looks beyond, and asks the hard questions. And that requires the inner eye to be constantly active, and to be constantly active is to be constantly fatigued.

 

For me, feminism means asking the questions AND living with the uncomfortable answers. It requires knowing why women never ever question why cleaning is always their responsibility. It requires knowing and understanding why a woman police officer who is a terror in her workplace comes home to be beaten by her husband. It requires understanding the social mechanisms by which a successful woman in a male-dominated field has to play by the man’s rules and be called a ‘bitch’ for her efforts. It requires patience to understand why men feel alienated in a world that they benefit hugely by. As a feminist, this looking inward and outward is even more important because the most famous slogan associated with the feminist movement – the personal is political – is not an empty statement. I know and understand that our individual actions are important and essential – because they reinforce and reify the cultural and social tropes. So, if we are to be committed, we have to be committed in our personal lives as well.

 

As a feminist, it takes something out of me to watch and live in a world that treats women (and men) in the manner that we do, but I also know I cannot fight everything all the time. So, I draw boundaries, make realistic decisions, let go of some battles and choose my own personal battles to fight. This doesn’t mean I do not sympathise, empathise, and extend solidarity with other feminist causes. It just means that I create spaces of advocacy and action in my own life that I deem are most important to me, and trust that there are enough of us who will do the same. Of course, not every feminist make these compromises, and life can be hard for them. And I owe these feminists a great deal . . . because I know through them, life is made easier for me. They are fighting the battles that I am not. And that knowledge – that I am living in a world of my choosing because someone else is not – can feel both safe and uncomfortable. And when I start to feel very safe, and when I start to cruise through my life without discomfort  – that’s when I know  it’s time to take the good old lens out, clean them up and put them back on – to see the world anew, again.