Category Archives: social perspectives

Bhootnath: Films and the economics of identity.

I came across this fabulous song sung by Amitabh and Juhi Chavla in the film Bhoothnath. I liked the song so much that I decided to check out other songs from the movie and then eventually the movie itself. I usually avoid such mistakes when it comes to Bollywood movies. No, don’t get me wrong. I am far from being the alternate cinema snob. I like good action packed as well as the mushy sickeningly pink hollywood movies and I survive on soaps on television. I enjoy the regional movies from India too. But somehow the brainless, senseless and artificially stylized Bollwood movies scare me off almost always!

Back to Bhoothnath. What I found most interesting apart from its concept, which you might say is inspired by Casper, is the songs featuring kids. They are raunchy and foottaping numbers filmed in the current style of hindi movies with lots of gals and guys surrounding our main characters from the film. However, the imagery used is bit different form what I have seen (or not seen!) earlier.

There are kids wearing bandanas, steel chains and similar jwellery and sometimes girls masquerading as cheerleaders. Sometimes they are shown playing American football or bouncing a basketball or standing on a street corner surrounded by girls and bikes. There is no more the galli pappu who breaks the window pane with his cricket stroke. Instead there is cool dude who breaks a TV with a baseball stroke! One song, featuring Amitabh with kids, includes a scene where he stands kneeling on a wall on a random street corner with a sweatshirt hood and his glasses on.

What do you think is common in all these imagery? You got it. It comes from Uncle Sam’s own country! Completely devoid of its context though. Very few people in India would understand the sociology of the hip hop imagery and its origins and very few parents in US would think that its cool for their kids to hangout on street corners. Still the way in which Bollywood movies mix imagery with distorted contexts to create a completely stylized representation is worth serious study.

What do we take from this? Well you could brush this away calling me a jerk and a spoilsport or think a bit hard and speculate about its economic ramifications. The film is sponsored by company’s like McDonalds. It is well documented how these chains used marketing strategies to target kids and ended up fundamentally changing the way people treat and eat food in the US. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is an eyeopening read in this regard. Hence, given the fact that a generation of kids fed on American imagery is good for business, it may not be unreasonable to expect that such companies will do whatever it takes to create such a mindset.

Of course this is speculation and you might deem it as far fetched. But its sometimes good to be a bit of an alarmist and see things even if everyone else does not see them. Its fun and ticklishly heretic!

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Affirmative Action in Education

Abstract:

Many countries mandate affirmative action in university admissions for traditionally disadvantaged groups. Little is known about either the efficacy or costs of these programs. This paper examines affirmative action in engineering colleges in India for “lower-caste” groups. We find that it successfully targets the financially disadvantaged: the marginal upper-caste applicant comes from a more advantaged background than the marginal lower-caste applicant who displaces him. Despite much lower entrance exam scores, the marginal lower-caste entrant does benefit: we find a strong, positive economic return to admission. These findings contradict common arguments against affirmative action: that it is only relevant for richer lower-caste members, or that those who are admitted are too unprepared to benefit from the education. However, these benefits come at a cost. Our point estimates suggest that the marginal upper-caste entrant enjoys nearly twice the earnings level gain as the marginal lower-caste entrant. This finding illustrates the program’s redistributive nature: it benefits the poor, but costs resources in absolute terms. One reason for this lower level gain is that a smaller fraction of lower-caste admits end up employed in engineering or advanced technical jobs. Finally, we find no evidence that the marginal upper-caste applicant who is rejected due to the policy ends up with more negative attitudes towards lower castes or towards affirmative action programs. On the other hand, there is some weak evidence that the marginal lower-caste admits become stronger supporters of affirmative action programs.

Reference:

Bertrand M, Hanna R, & Mullainathan S (2008), Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence From Engineering College Admissions in India, NBER Working Paper 13926.

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Women as Policy Makers

I am sure many of us must have watched movies where the theme was women’s reservation. Though, most of them turn out to be a ‘cliche’, they at least bring out the complexities involved in implementing such policies. One can also occasionally find journalistic write ups on the issue. However, all said and done, most of these articles turn out to be anecdotal at best and unfortunately movies cannot constitute any substantive evidence either! This is where this article becomes important.

Do reservations for women at the Panchayat level work? This is the focus of the article. The authors use political reservations for women in India to study the impact of women’s leadership on policy decisions. They use data collected from 256 village councils from West Bengal and Rajasthan and compare the type of public goods provided in reserved and unreserved village councils.

The authors find that women elected as leaders under the reservation policy invest more in the public goods more closely related to women’s concerns: drinking water and roads in West Bengal and drinking water in Rajasthan. They invest less in public goods that are more closely linked to men’s concerns: education in West Bengal and roads in Rajasthan. These results seem to largely attributable to the gender of the Pradhan as they are unaffected by other characteristics of Pradhan.

According to the authors, these results contradict the simple intuition behind the Downsian model and the idea that political decisions are the outcomes of a Coasian bargaining process. In both of these views of the world, the fact that a woman is the head of the Gram Panchayat should not influence policy decisions. These results also suggest that direct manipulation of the identity of the policy maker can have important effects on policy.

It will be interesting to carry out similar type of analysis in other states and see what emerges. This is a very pertinent issue, not only from the point of view of gender empowerment but as noted by authors, also from the design of decentralized political institutions and their efficacy point of view.

Reference:
Chattopadhyay R & Duflo E (2004), “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India”, Econometrica, 72, 5, 1409-1443.

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Swastika!

It was a touching and yet a clich├ęd moment on the latest Gray’s Anatomy. A patient refused to be examined by a lady doctor and when a male doctor offers to help, again says no. So it turns out that the patient being a perfect racist refuses to be examined both by the initial female and male doctors because they were black! Finally he has to put up with the black lady doctor and while performing the surgery she makes an incision running across the ‘swastika’ that the guy has tattooed on his abdomen. Now thats what I am talking about. Ain’t it a fabulous token gesture?

Jokes apart and though I would love to see such parochial attitudes marginalized, it is surprising to see how one man can completely twist the meaning and significance of a symbol!

‘Swastika’ is an Indian symbol (I am told that most of the ancient societies had some version of this symbol) and represents well being and auspiciousness in every day Hindu life. Many houses will have it placed on the threshold of their house in some from or the other. So as much as I hate what Hitler and folks did to the Jews, I hate to see the symbol of auspiciousness mutilated to represent utter disgust and hate.

What is actually more disturbing is that the pairing of Swastika with hatred in peoples mind in this part of the world is so strong, that it almost never seems to occur to anyone that believing in such association may hurt some other societies at the same time. Every time you associate Swastika with hatred you disregard the existence of a belief of almost a billion people in country called India!

So whats the solution? People need to be educated and the concerned activists and the press should refrain from stereotyping things. If you find this difficult and implausible at least call it by its German name dammit!

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Why Blog?

It seems intellectually fashionable to have one nowadays, I suppose or at least hope! It is more like a slate for me. Jot down random thoughts on random topics and see if someone else has given any thought to it. It is an excursion in randomness with a lingering, now and then, on the intangible but ever present sign posts of who we are. It is this intellectual connection that presents itself as a motivation to go on in an otherwise pretty routine and insipid life. The feeling, or some may choose to call it a semblance, of being wiser after every word written down or read is what I am craving for.

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