Institutions: reflections

The bad thing about constructive work is that it makes it more difficult to do non-constructive things like reading and writing blogs. After a crazy schedule for almost a month and half (including 3 hindi movies):, finally managed to sit down and finish some documentation and other sundry work.

The world has decidedly gone to hell in the past few weeks. Pakistan is going crazy, so is Kenya, the Middle East, as usual is looking doomed, SM Krishna is returning to Karnataka politics, BIAL is opening (with its interesting user fee concept), a world food crisis looks imminent, the stock market is acting like a cranky kid, so are gold prices, privacy concerns are freaking out people. But one can reflect on Walter Benjamin’s words:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (written in 1940)

In other words, business is as usual. Coming back to the topic at hand, we had an interesting discussion in class about the importance of institutions, their design and management. One of the courses this semester is sustainable rural and urban development, both of which can be made into a course themselves. Though development-oriented courses emphasize on ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, this one has so far touched only ‘why’. We had a few case studies on Pani Panchayat, Ralegan Siddhi, Pabal and Tilonia, touching upon their salient features and looking at reasons for their success.

The question that arises first is why institutions after all? By institutions, one can mean anything from religion to marriage to Archie’s comics. Anything that sets up a predictable behavior pattern in individuals that subscribe to it, generation after generation. Any long term advancement of social life is possible only via institutions. Else, individuals make a great impact when they are there, and their influence vanishes after they are gone. Institutions provide a sense of security and stability to people. This is one of the reasons first time mothers almost blindly believe anything that their parents or grandparents or relatives (preferably female) tell them, however ridiculous it may seem. The process of socialization drives certain institutions deep into us, especially the ones most needed to live in society.

The problem with institutions arises when those that subscribe to it are given no choice. The burqa system is a good example. Many women may want to wear one and feel proud to do so, but why it is considered repressive is that the exceptions who do not want it are forced to wear one, for the sake of preserving tradition. This is an important characteristic of any institution: it carries within it rules to preserve itself. Government, caste, education (by means of recognition through educational qualifications) are other examples which strongly show this characteristic. Betty and Veronica are now institutions: there is no way Veronica can become the sweet girl next door anymore. Any attempt to do so(on a long term basis) will destroy the essence of Archie’s. Therefore, institutions tend to become rigid and ossified as time goes by. The reason for this is two-fold: the institution has a better chance of survival when there are no critics, and no competent people man the institution, and its rules become superstition instead of practical pointers to guide daily life. Only competent people who understand the reasons (if any) behind the formation of the rules laid down are in a position to change them. Trenchant critics as outsiders cannot, dullards running the show also cannot.

About their design. Realising that the longer an instituition survives, the more likely it will tend to establish a hegemony, one should make the basic precepts as accessible and open to debate as possible. Modern science no longer can lay claim to this feature. Even incremental changes require large amounts of ‘specialization’. Since not everyone become scientists and are not really bothered what scientists to unless it has a direct impact on them, this is (almost) acceptable. But everybody lives in a society, and must have a say in how they want to live and grow. The major issue now arising in development circles is the insinuation of western institutions into cultures which are neither prepared nor willing (mentally, physically, culturally) to accept them. Like I mentioned, institutions give a sense of stability and wholesale replacement is usually rejected by the majority. Deccan Herald recently ran an article where the author pities the Nandigram villagers because they rejected ‘modernization’ and was very sure they would regret it. He also called the landowners in Orissa greedy for not parting with their land for mining and other ways to rape land. While such attitude may seem shocking, it seems to be the attitude shared by those with power. ‘My way or the highway’ is hardly the perfect path for institutional reform/change.

And such issues in a democracy. Imagine what would be the situation in China or Venezuela or Cuba. The problem with such wholesale change is that the population becomes restive and loses its sense of autonomy, and tends to rely on others for direction. That is why farmers make loans knowing they cannot repay them (since the Government will waive them anyways) and new converts to a religion are the most intense. Technologists trying to put a laptop in every child’s, well, lap will inevitably cause similar problems. While undoubtedly institutions like caste and religion need reform, implementing them at a societal (rather than philosophical, where nobody gets hurt) level should be incremental and build on existing institutions, rather than reject them altogether. While this approach may not seem attractive to hot-blooded idealists, it is the path of least pain, which is most important.

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