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Reviewed by Shailaja Chandra

Published : Saturday, 10 February, 2024 at 12:00 AM  Count : 905



The book unravels why India has failed in bringing about social development compared with some of its South Asian neighbours...

Swati Narayans UnEqual entreats the reader to seek an answer to her repeated question -why does India increasingly lag in human development, even as her Asian neighbours overtake her in social achievement?

In a compelling book she persuades the reader to join her narrative on the inequalities of caste, class, and gender as the main factors that have impacted human development in selected regions.

Her critique of why Indias poorer neighbours - Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka - are forging ahead on education, healthcare, nutrition and sanitation, female literacy, life expectancy, infant and child mortality and malnutrition, are embedded in one argument: Until the differences that divide class, caste and gender are confronted, "the majority of (Indias) population will remain subjugated" …."And can never prosper, let alone be a world leader."

While her accounts are lucid and resonate with established notions of justice, it is when she uses data based on her own empirical research that questions about statistical robustness cloud the credibility of her narrative.

The most fascinating parts of her book are in the chapters where she unfolds the history and social movements in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bihar, Sri Lanka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

She flags a slew of landmark events to argue within each country or state what influenced the decline - even the removal of abject inequality, or failing to do so - as in the case of Bihar. The strong linkages between removal of discrimination and progress in human development have been argued persuasively.

Bangladeshs social journey
Writing on Bangladesh the book describes how the political leaders and even the elites dedicated themselves to social welfare causes. She attributes this to specific events which gave birth to a unique social contract between the Bangladeshi ruling classes and ordinary citizens.

Narratives on the spread of Buddhism, the advent of Islam, followed by mass conversion of rural people, the arrival of the Sufi mystics from Central Asia, provide stimulating perspectives, told like a story.

Likewise, the birth of the bhadraloks, the marginalisation of the Bangladeshi Muslim elites because of their own hostility to English, and the colonial administration then drawing on the skills of the Hindu upper caste, professional and landowning elites, followed by their subsequent mass exodus into West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, unveil the cross-roads witnessed by that history.

Likewise, her description of how the thrust on female education spurred a shift in traditional power dynamics, with the educated a Bangladeshi daughter-in-law gaining dominance, are absorbing, particularly as the phenomenon is yet unknown here.

Nepals struggles
In contrast, she says Nepal went through centuries of "hinduisation" carrying "institutionalised crippling caste inequalities and discrimination."

Their eventual moderation has been credited to the Nepalese womens movement, the decade long Peoples War and to the 2015 Constitution of Nepal which she says were critical in reducing social discrimination.

She acclaims the Maoist campaigns against abhorrent gender practices and the anti-alcohol crusade for redefining the stereotypes associated with gender and the division of labour. According to her, it was the end of feudalism and the restoration of democracy that moved Nepal into the medium category of human development.

The chapter on Bihar is dispiriting and since the accounts are specific, they ring true. Overt discrimination between and among the economically backward castes and the bottom rung of the Dalits, have been captured through vivid accounts of inhuman subjugation.

Stories of children being denied mid-day meals and the phenomenon of physical distancing, which reflects a persons position in the caste hierarchy, are distressing.

Nonetheless, she says, between the Chief ministership of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar there has been a rise in the political influence of the other backward classes, although Dalits continue to remain on the margins.

Descriptions of the brutal retaliation by private militia led by the ruthless Ranveer Sena - a creation of the higher castes - leading to femicide have, she concludes, has denied Bihari women the transformation that Nepali women fought for (as guerrillas) and grasped.

The examples she has cited be it of social disparities, the absence of public services in interior areas, non-inclusive growth, the plight of the musahars, (rat catchers) - among the most marginalised within all lower castes, the unbridled domination of the upper classes, leaves the reader with little hope of change.

Even so she recognises the role of Nitish Kumar for having introduced a 50 per cent reservation of seats for women in the panchayat elections and a 35 per cent in government jobs.

Southern Supermodels
The chapter devoted to the Southern Supermodels - Sri Lanka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and their early and continuing progress in human development is likewise absorbing, leaving the reader with positive vibes. Weaving her narratives between history, public policy, social movements, she links each account with improvement in the status of women and greater egalitarianism.
How Kerala overcame "the madhouse of caste" and how Tamil Nadus anti-caste movement bolstered an enduring commitment to social welfare are impressive.

Across the board, her reportage of rural microcredit in Bangladesh, Kudumbashree in Kerala, early (1931) conferment of the right to vote on women in Sri Lanka, which resulted in Srimavo Bandarnaike becoming the worlds first woman PM, Keralas hard-won victory against the barbaric practice of compulsory breast baring by women, the inspiration of Periyar in Tamil Nadu and a slew of uprisings that helped combat the inequalities of caste, class and gender have been written engagingly and skilfully.

Reverting to Narayans own "one-of -a kind primary survey," her selection of the Muslim dominated Kishanganj district of Bihar - incidentally among the lowest ranking districts, not only in Bihar - but all of India - and comparing it with Panchagrah district in Bangladesh - only because it is "just 50 km apart, as the crow flies," cannot overcome a charge of selection bias.
Likewise, her choice of Muzaffarpur district also in Bihar (for no identifiable reason, except it being Hindu dominated,) and comparing it with Nepals Sindhuli district read as stories and are by themselves interesting and credible, but they remain stories.

Her descriptions of what she saw - be it the functional community health clinics, efficient but extremely low-cost toilets in Bangladesh, the investment in early schooling, timely availability of textbooks in Nepal, the lower rates of absenteeism of school teachers, do reinforce her point about the disparities and discrimination that prevail in the Bihari villages.

It is when she weaves her anecdotal findings and escalates them into what a reader will assume to be country comparisons of India with her two eastern neighbours that her arguments become overstretched.

Her field work relies on a miniscule sample of four districts in all, in three countries and that too, just 80 villages covering interviews with 1,600 women, (without disaggregation of SC, ST, OBC and other sub-groups).

There are no references to the years when the visits took place and her omission of recent progress available in the results of the latest NFHS survey, covering every State and district in India, amounts to selectively picking what supports her narrative.

By comparing raw statistics between the countries without normalising for structural differences, the inferences can even be misleading. In making data comparisons, a more balanced, rigorous, and contextual analysis is needed.

Despite these shortcomings, this is a great read especially for readers interested in the themes and regions UnEqual has traversed.


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