India: A public-private divide

Individualistic on paper, Collectivist in practice

I should be doing a 100 different things on my to-do list right now. Instead, I will write this piece before this framework disappears from my head. There’s a good chance that you the reader have a 100 different things to do as well and are procrastinating. But this is productive procrastination, so we’re both good. Ok, I’ll stop rambling and get to the point.

I spent the past two weeks with groups of dizzyingly brilliant innovators, public intellectuals, economists, civil servants across two beautiful cities in India. This framework of a public-private divide crystallized during a side conversation in between events.

The idea is simple. Our Constitution assumes the individual agency of the Indian citizen whereas our society remains collectivist — where family, kinship, sub-caste, community, religion and region affinities are at odds with individualism. Whether for better or for worse is hotly debated. The fact remains that the Constitution was written for a highly individualistic society. Society needs to play catch-up by subverting some of the social structures I mention for the reality of private life to meet what is publicly guaranteed by our Constitution.

Before I sound way out of line, I want to say this is not to hate on the Constituent Assembly via a what the hell guys, how did you draft a Constitution that is so at odds with how our society functions. I think therein lies the brilliance and way-ahead of time vision of the men and women who founded our nation. They were well aware of this contradiction (think Ambedkar’s famous claim of Indian republic entering a life of contradictions where in politics we have equality but in social and economic life we don’t).

Our Constitution recognizes the principle of one woman/man, one vote and grants individuals fundamental rights to personal liberty, freedom and the right to equality. What this means is that individuals are legally guaranteed the right to choose a life partner, occupation of choice, how many children to have and with whom among other things. This is extremely difficult to enforce in practice. Attempts to assert this Constitutionally guaranteed individual agency is often met with disastrous consequences — think love jihad and khap panchayats, discrimination on grounds of caste and religion by employers and landlords, and atrocious incidents of back-lash for Dalits who attempt to break out of the socio-economic hierarchy imposed on them.

When the news of Roe v. Wade being overturned in the US broke, there was a flood of pithy takes on social media about how the reproductive rights in India are progressive on paper. In my humble opinion, this is yet another instance where individual agency is recognized in the letter. In practice, however, how many children you have, whether to abort (more often than not driven by pernicious son preference), and when to have them are determined by actors who have no business meddling. In other words, the woman considering motherhood hardly resembles the agency-wielding individual our laws assume her to be when granting her reproductive rights.

Going back to Ambedkar’s claim of persistent inequalities in social and economic life contrasting with political equality. I would say the latter are changing more rapidly than the former. I am thinking of economic growth and urbanization (Ambedkar would be happy with me for invoking cities here!). Some of you will yell at me pointing out rising economic inequality especially in cities. I am absolutely fine with economic inequality as long as we are overturning that some get to always remain in first place across generations (i.e. intergenerational mobility). As of 2012, while intergenerational mobility is higher in urban areas than rural areas, there is substantial variation by geography. Interestingly, women have substantially higher mobility than men in urban areas and the difference in mobility between rural-urban areas is far greater for women than men (see here). That said, unlike other countries, nuclear families haven’t been on the rise in urban areas overall and compared to rural areas since the 1980s…

My take: Structural transformation and urbanization has closed some of the contradiction between political equality and economic inequality in India. Economic opportunity is one way to taste individual agency beyond the ballot. However, the path to agency in social life is less straightforward. The family and kinship networks remain the most important units of society as I was reminded by a goldsmith in Old City, Udaipur (Rajasthan). When asked about whether the wives in their family are involved with the trade, he promptly said “humaare sunaar caste mein aisa nahin hota” (this is not how it works in our goldsmith caste). He did mention other castes however, where women are historically involved in the trade. The questions weren’t leading and didn’t allude to caste, sub-caste and kinship at all. I have no answers on how and at what pace structural transformation can close the gap between political and social equality or the extent to which it can breathe individualism in social life. I also don’t have great evidence yet. But now that I have this mental model of India with an individualistic Constitution on a collectivist people, I see it everywhere and will be thinking about it more systematically. For now, I only have this stream of consciousness ramble that I have put you through.

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