Monday, 9 December 2013

From Sonapur To Singapore, Elysium Stands Exposed

Riots in Singapore! The news is shocking not just for its violent fury (vehicles burnt, police cars overturned) but also for the fact that they could happen at all in such a country - orderly, disciplined Singapore. As I followed more of the news, initial incredulity gave way to a sardonic and depressing recognition as the location of the riots and the identity of the rioters became apparent. The rioters were reported to be migrant workers from India and Bangladesh. Such unseemly events are unfortunately common in India, and if they had to happen in Singapore, it could only be in Little India.

The initial provocation seems to have been the fatal running over of a migrant South Asian worker by a private bus, but the reaction of his fellows was extreme and of surprising scale (400 persons were said to have rioted, trashing property and taking on even the police). There surely must have been some deeper, long-standing grievances that burst through the surface with this incident.

Infographic from The Straits Times analysing the riot

Cyberspace was quick as always to pick up on the race angle, and it was open season for the commentariat's stereotyping and name-calling. Officialdom, equally quick to underplay or deny the race angle, chose to emphasise an aseptic "law and order" concern instead. However, both these narratives are only partially correct. This is partly about race, and partly about law and order. But in truth, it is about economics, it is about global capitalism, it is about rising but frustrated expectations, and it is ultimately about revolution. (Historians tell us that revolutions occur during times of rising expectations, and we happen to live in one of those times.)

I'm no Marxist, but I have eyes and I can see. I believe I can see better than our political leaders and captains of industry that we cannot build a consumerist paradise on the back of underpaid migrant labour and expect eternal tranquillity. Our globalised capitalist system cannot see beyond its nose or this quarter's profit figures. Relentless in driving down the costs of its inputs and raising the prices of its outputs to whatever levels the market will bear, the system has created a social tinderbox. The recent Science Fiction film "Elysium" starring Matt Damon is a commentary on exactly what we are seeing on earth today with its bubbles of serene prosperity such as Singapore. As Wikipedia says, Elysium "explores political and sociological themes such as immigration, overpopulation, transhumanism, health care, exploitation and class issues". This is exactly the ugly can of worms that Singapore's riots have rudely laid bare.

Elysium - the world of the privileged elite

Earth - where the rest of humanity lives

As the saying goes, we don't live in an economy. We live in a society. The most powerful argument against treating human beings as "resources" is that resources are not expected to nurse grievances about exploitation and injustice. Human beings can and do.

I have personal experience of exploitation by that other Elysium - Dubai. In 1994-95, even after completing my second masters degree, I was working in India earning a pathetic salary of 8000 rupees a month. Highly educated yet poorly paid, I was living a life of genteel poverty in high-cost Mumbai, and it could not last. Marriage accentuated the unviability of my condition, so my wife and I moved into my parents' house for a modest improvement in living standards. That too could not last. It was then that I received a job offer from an employer in Dubai, and it seemed too good to be true. I was offered the equivalent of 60,000 rupees a month, and I immediately accepted, overjoyed at my good fortune. But reality hit as soon as I landed in Dubai, for two reasons. One, the amount I was paid, while generous by Indian standards, only allowed me a modest living in Dubai. Two, I quickly learned that expats from more developed countries, the UK in particular, were earning many multiples of what I did. Among my class, i.e., the educated white-collar Indian expats of Dubai, there was constant jealous muttering and grumbling about the Brits. The grapevine carried tales of new hires from the UK to senior management positions with hefty salaries and perks like villas, BMWs and four-wheel drives. One of these people, it was said, used to be a petrol station attendant back in the UK. Now he lived in a villa and drove a fancy car to work, while we Indians, with far better education, lived in modest apartment blocks and walked to work, often in the blazing Middle East sun.

Neverthless, I had it relatively easy. I have since read about the plight of migrant labour in Dubai, also from the Indian subcontinent but from more impoverished backgrounds than mine. They are paid a pittance (yet more than what they could earn in India), housed in overcrowded tenements, bused out to construction sites early in the morning and bused back in the evening. The Dubai township where many of them are housed is called, with deep irony, Sonapur (Hindi for "city of gold"). Sonapur is the Earth to Dubai's Elysium. It is Sonapur's migrant labour that builds Dubai's gleaming skyscrapers, its unaffordably priced hotels with the taps of gold, its luxurious shopping malls, indoor ski slopes and ice rinks and other symbols of hedonistic excess. It is a world that Sonapur's worker class can see, but can never hope to touch. I confess that for a few years after my Dubai experience, I harboured a deep sense of resentment towards UK nationals, whom I viewed as undeservingly entitled and privileged. Having experienced class jealousy and a sense of injustice first hand, I can imagine what the developed world's underclass must feel.

Dubai - The Elysium of the Middle East

Sonapur - Dubai's migrant workers' quarter

My own story turned out quite well. The second masters degree that I referred to earlier was in preparation for migration to Australia, another fortress-like Elysium with a moat and drawbridge to keep out unwanted boat people. As a skilled migrant, I was welcomed into this rarefied world. Education was my ticket to Elysium, and although I had to undergo some sacrifice to attain it, it was within my reach. For the uneducated migrant workers of Dubai, Singapore and elsewhere, Elysium is hopelessly and permanently beyond reach.

What can be done? The official response to the latest riots is typically and laughably Singaporean - ban alcohol. In the nineties, faced with an epidemic of passive-aggressive citizen protest in the form of chewing gum stuck to the buttons of elevators and the door sensors on the MRT, the Singaporean government responded in the way it knew best. It banned chewing gum. There was no attempt to understand the social frustrations that lay beneath that layer of chewing gum, and I don't expect any such attempt now. There will be no ban on migrant labour itself, nor a raise in their wages. Such moves would threaten the financial foundations on which the prosperity of Elysium rests, so sheer economic rationalism would forestall such moves. However, the roots of riots like this are not alcohol but frustration. Asking people to work for a pittance to build a world of luxury in which they cannot share is a recipe for social unrest. We can ban alcohol, but we cannot ban frustration.

Viewing this as a purely law-and-order situation is also limiting. Yes, lawbreaking cannot be condoned, so arrests, prosecutions and convictions must occur. But while we may sip our lattes and debate whether we live in a melting pot or a salad bowl, the reality for many is that they live in a pressure cooker. Cracking down only tightens the lid on that pressure cooker. It doesn't reduce the pressure, and any long-term solution has to address that. The differences in our society are not so much charming diversity as stark disparity. It is a situation that demands urgent policy attention.

I'm not a socialist, and I don't advocate socialistic solutions. I know that we cannot legislate an artificial economic equality. But I am egalitarian, and I believe that all human beings have a right to be treated with equal dignity. For an egalitarian society to be even viable, the quality of human capital has to be raised to a certain minimum level across the world. Capitalism is our best hope, but it needs to evolve into a wiser system that sees human beings not as resources to be exploited but as productive free agents as well as well-off consumers, so it must aim to put more money and time into people's hands. This is not for altruistic reasons but out of enlightened self-interest. The returns for all are much higher when societies are uniformly well-off.

So this is not really Singapore's problem, or Dubai's, or the developed world's. It is a problem for the governments of poorer countries to solve, and urgently. If Indian nationals can expect higher living standards at home, the laws of capitalism will of course ensure that fewer of them will find employment in foreign countries, but those that do will be offered wages that are closer to what nationals of those countries receive, reducing disparity and consequent social unrest. India must grow at a minimum of 10% for the next 15 to 20 years to prevent these pressure cookers around the world from exploding. [India also has an additional problem of 30 million "extra males" resulting from years of gender selective reproduction, and the frustrations of a generation of unfulfilled Indian men will create problems both for the country and for the world, but that is a separate issue.]

If there is one man who can be indirectly blamed for Singapore's riots, it is India's economist prime minister Manmohan Singh. In the last five years of his current term, he has done nothing to unshackle the Indian economy and facilitate the growth rate that can save us all a world of pain. He is sure to exit office after the May 2014 elections. I fervently hope India's future leaders have what it takes to raise the country's living standards, or else, given the global importance of subcontinental labour, all the world's Elysiums could come crashing down.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Some Thoughts On Vote-Bank Politics And A Uniform Civil Code

A friend pointed me to a program on NDTV where the prominent Indian politician, Subramanian Swamy, made a couple of noteworthy points.

Subramanian Swamy - voice of reason, or dangerous demagogue?

His first point pertained to vote-bank politics. He said, very correctly, that Indian politics has always been dominated by vote-bank calculations along religious and caste lines. Politicians have always tried to appeal to narrow sectarian interests, such as Yadavs, Jats, Dalits and Muslims. I'm not very sure if he was right in claiming that Muslims (or indeed any other group) vote as a bloc, but I certainly don't agree with his corollary that he is doing nothing different by attempting to consolidate the Hindu vote by dissolving the caste boundaries that divide Hindus.

My reasoning is that multi-cornered electoral contests are less "dangerous" to a society than two-sided ones. Multi-cornered fights are necessarily more diffuse, and the shifting allegiances of coalition politics can prevent communal fault-lines from developing into permanent battle-lines. In contrast, two-sided contests, especially when they take on the flavour of a dominant majority versus a minority, can be quite poisonous, as the example of India's neighbour Sri Lanka should have amply made clear.

So Swamy's innocent claim that he is pursuing nothing different from what political parties have always done, is not something that can be accepted with equanimity. The consolidation of a Hindu vote, if it ever comes about, will be a dangerous development, and it will set India drifting in the direction of a civil war without end.

I believe a secular society must be stoutly defended, but by the state, not a community. In other words, the response to a sports team that plays too aggressively is not an equally aggressive opposing team, but a strong referee who enforces the rules and is not afraid to hand out red cards.

The second point he made was about the desirability of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) for the country, as opposed to the current situation where Muslim citizens of India come under the jurisdiction of Muslim Personal Law (a subset of Shariah law dealing with civil cases like property disputes and alimony, and thankfully not the beheading, stoning, flogging and amputation variety.)

Swamy has a very strong case (as evidenced by the show of hands he was able to elicit in the studio), but in my opinion, the argument in favour of the UCC has never been framed correctly.

Rajiv Gandhi's government erred by introducing Muslim Personal Law for Muslims in the Shah Bano case. In effect, the government threw Muslim women under the bus, starting with Shah Bano herself. A civil court would have granted her alimony, but when her case was deemed to come under the purview of Muslim Personal Law, she got nothing. Clearly, a Uniform Civil Code would be better for Muslim women, since Muslim Personal Law is relatively misogynistic, but would Muslim women vote for it? I doubt it. That's because the whole UCC question has been needlessly turned into one of personal identity, and projected as proof that the Hindu majority is attempting to take away the identity of Indian Muslims by denying them their own system of laws.

The way I believe the UCC should be approached is by positioning Muslim Personal Law as a form of arbitration. All civil cases should be heard by a regular court that applies uniform laws for all citizens, but if the two parties to a case are both Muslim, and both agree to have their case heard by a Muslim court instead, then the case may be referred to the Muslim Law Board as a legally recognised arbitrator. In other words, the two parties agree to settle their case out of court using a community-recognised arbitrator. If either party refuses, the case remains in the civil court. Thus, the UCC does not replace Muslim Personal Law, but merely treats it as an alternative mechanism to resolve disputes if both parties agree.

[Once both parties agree to have their case heard by the Muslim Law Board, they must also agree in advance that its verdict will be binding on them. Neither of them may return to the civil court in case of an unfavourable verdict by the MLB, since such a recourse will just encourage "verdict shopping".]

I believe this is the way the UCC debate should be framed. Muslim Personal Law should still be an available option for two willing parties. After all, even in a civil court, two parties have the right to have their case settled out of court or through the use of an arbitrator. MPL just needs to stop being an alternate universe for Muslim citizens. Provided this legal model is argued and sold intelligently, it is possible that many Muslims will also support it. The perceived assault on minority identity can be avoided while also bringing sanity to the justice system.