Trans Inclusion in Corporate India: Ideas, Questions and Challenges

In December 2018, the Mumbai-based Godrej India Culture Lab published a white paper titled ‘A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace’ authored by Nayanika Nambiar and Parmesh Shahani. What is remarkable about this document is that it offers policy researchers working on gender issues an opportunity to think outside the binary of man/woman, an exclusionary lens that is steeped in cisgender privilege. It sensitises readers to the challenges faced by trans people in Indian society but does not stop at enumerating what is dysfunctional about current systems; it is invested in documenting best practices through case studies and providing corporates with a rigorous blueprint for policies that revolve around trans inclusion.

This article aims to offer a critical reading of the manifesto in the light of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 passed by the Indian Parliament, which has been widely critiqued by trans activists themselves whom the state constructs as intended beneficiaries of the new legislation.1,2,3,4,5,6 Fortunately, Nambiar and Shahani, the authors of the manifesto present it not as a finished document but as a work in progress that is open to future iterations. Their objective is to find a path that can address the needs of trans people from a rights-based perspective while also securing the financial interests of businesses.

Recognising trans inclusion as a separate category of work that requires attention within the broader mandate of adopting LGBTQ+ friendly policies is a significant step advocated in the manifesto. The authors note that trans employees “face a distinctly different set of challenges in the workplace that are not a part of the lesbian, gay or bi experience”. These are crucial to account for because diversity and inclusion efforts in the corporate sector, and the queer rights movement in general, have excluded trans people when the leadership is concentrated in the hands of cisgender gay men.7, 8

In an email dated March 10, 2020, Nambiar and Shahani elaborated, “Through the course of writing the manifesto, several trans individuals brought up that housing was a difficult issue to navigate. The prejudices of housing societies and landlords makes the process of renting a flat quite uncomfortable. In addition to this, it is difficult to manage the expenses of hormone therapy as well as rent. This was a recurring issue with the trans employees that Kochi Metro was working with. Another hurdle that is sometimes out of the company’s hands is commute — trans persons often face discrimination on the way to work. If companies can provide shuttle services or chalk out a carpooling policy, this might help as well”. 

While the stated aim of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 is to prohibit discrimination against trans people in terms of access to education and employment opportunities as well as the ability to rent or buy property, it prescribes no penalty or remedy for breach of these provisions.9 Instead of respecting the principle of self-determination, it violates the dignity and bodily autonomy of trans people.10 It empowers the district magistrate and the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex to determine who is qualified to identify as trans, and who does not fit the bill, based on biological determinism and compulsory gender affirmation surgery.11, 12, 13, 14

When legal recognition is made a prerequisite to establish the personhood of a trans person, any revision to the manifesto will have to keep in mind that corporates are likely to build policy mandates around the letter of the law rather than human rights precedents. The burden of documentary proof hinders access to health care, bank loans and housing. In their email dated March 10, 2020, Nambiar and Shahani mentioned, “According to the National Human Rights Commission report, less than half of India’s trans population have access to education, and 62% of those that do, face abuse and discrimination. In this light, companies should try to evaluate trans candidates on the basis of skills and not qualifications, and perhaps even begin skilling programmes in-house as well”.

As a result of their estrangement from the families they were born into, trans employees may not possess identification documents such as their birth certificate, election photo identity card, PAN card or Aadhaar card. Going back is not a choice because they have had to extract themselves from contexts of violence and abuse, where there is a threat to their life. Their legal status has become even more precarious in recent times, as is evident from recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). They are anxious about being stripped of their citizenship because they are not in a position to furnish documents showing family history of residing in India.15, 16, 17, 18

While Nambiar and Shahani did not have anything to say about how the corporate sector can protect trans employees who are unable to produce the citizenship documents mandated by the NRC and the NPR, they did comment on how companies can back trans persons who are worried about their legal status because of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. Nambiar and Shahani stated, over email, “In the case of name and gender change on identification documents — companies should maintain ties with local NGOs working to help trans persons with this process. The process is outlined here on TWEET (Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust) Foundation’s website: https://tweetindia.org/name-change/. NGOs often have better leverage than companies in matters of documentation”.

They added, “The company’s legal team could also assist and advise trans persons undergoing this process. In terms of which documents are required, it differs from state to state. Sandeep Nair of Community told us that that the individual could also be employed based on a notarised affidavit declaring their name and gender and then the company can further assist them in applying for the Central Gazette notification”. Navigating these bureaucratic hurdles is a complex and cumbersome process, and one of the strengths of the manifesto is that it attends to these practical considerations alongside advocating for a trans affirmative discourse.

A new and improved version of the manifesto would benefit from a more detailed articulation of the psychological implications of dysphoria and transitioning, the reasoning behind the use of preferred pronouns, and the trauma caused by misgendering and deadnaming for individuals whose identity documents reflect the gender assigned to them at birth and not their self-determined gender identity. This knowledge is essential to impress upon corporates the need to provide mental health resources and services for trans employees. A deeper engagement with what sexual harassment at the workplace and what intimate partner violence at home could look like for trans persons might also play a substantial role in informing trans inclusion policies.

Nambiar and Shahani are of the opinion that all policies should be made gender neutral and trans inclusive, including the policy on the prevention of sexual harassment. Over email, they said, “Over and above this, companies should know of queer affirmative counsellors, companies or NGOs that provide mental health services, as they would have the expertise required to understand what the employee is going through. It is vital that companies consult with LGBTQ+ community organisations while drafting their policies — there are many excellent organisations with expertise now at working with corporations”.

While this could be a fertile ground for collaboration, competing ideologies can also lead to friction. There is a growing body of critique around how companies are trying to cash in on the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ+ consumers through a well-packaged narrative of rainbow capitalism that cares only about the revenue they bring, and not their rights. It is seen as replacing the culture of rebellion against patriarchy, conversion therapy and corrective rape with a rhetoric of assimilation that upholds monogamy and the nuclear family as normative, respectable institutions that will guarantee a fairy-tale version of happiness akin to heteronormativity. It also erases the struggles of LGBTQ+ people who are marginalised by virtue of being working class, dalits, adivasis, Muslims, sex workers, racial minorities or refugees.19, 20, 21, 22 While the Godrej India Culture Lab has been conscious about programming events that look at these intersections of identity, it remains to be seen whether it can convince other corporates to do the same.

REFERENCES:-


  1. Knight, K. (2019) India’s Transgender Rights Law Isn’t Worth Celebrating. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/05/indias-transgender-rights-law-isnt-worth-celebrating (Accessed 17 March 2020)

2. Pathak, S. (2019) India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It? NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/12/04/784398783/india-just-passed-a-trans-rights-bill-why-are-trans-activists-protesting-it (Accessed 17 March 2020)

3. Shukla, P. (2019) India’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019: A Critique. Eurasia Review. Retrieved from https://www.eurasiareview.com/30122019-indias-transgender-persons-protection-of-rights-act-2019-a-critique (Accessed 17 March 2020)

4. Bhatia, G. (2020) ‘The Constitutional Challenge to the Transgender Act’, Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy (blog). Retrieved from https://indconlawphil.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/the-constitutional-challenge-to-the-transgender-act/ (Accessed 31 January 2020)

5. K. R., B. (2020) India’s Transgender Community Must Gear Up For A Long Fight. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/transgender-citizenship-amendment-act_in_5e340c60c5b69a19a4ad9e15 (Accessed 17 March 2020)

6. Sahai, V. (2020) The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Centre for Law and Policy Research. Retrieved from https://clpr.org.in/blog/the-sexual-is-political-consent-and-the-transgender-persons-protection-of-rights-act-2019 (Accessed 17 March 2020)

7. Modi, C. G. (2020) Queer Azadi Mumbai 2020: For whose pride? The Hindu. Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/society/queer-azaadi-mumbai-2020-for-whose-pride/article30950346.ece (Accessed 17 March 2020)

8. Tellis, A. (2020) Saffron rainbow rises as queers police their own. The Asian Age. Retrieved from https://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/080220/saffron-rainbow-rises-as-queers-police-their-own.html (Accessed 17 March 2020)

9. Bhatia, G. (2020) ‘The Constitutional Challenge to the Transgender Act’, Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy (blog). Retrieved from https://indconlawphil.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/the-constitutional-challenge-to-the-transgender-act/ (Accessed 31 January 2020)

10. Pathak, S. (2019) India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It? NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/12/04/784398783/india-just-passed-a-trans-rights-bill-why-are-trans-activists-protesting-it (Accessed 17 March 2020)

11. Knight, K. (2019) India’s Transgender Rights Law Isn’t Worth Celebrating. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/05/indias-transgender-rights-law-isnt-worth-celebrating (Accessed 17 March 2020)

12. Pathak, S. (2019) India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It? NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/12/04/784398783/india-just-passed-a-trans-rights-bill-why-are-trans-activists-protesting-it (Accessed 17 March 2020)

13. K. R., B. (2020) India’s Transgender Community Must Gear Up For A Long Fight. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/transgender-citizenship-amendment-act_in_5e340c60c5b69a19a4ad9e15 (Accessed 17 March 2020)

14. Sahai, V. (2020) The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Centre for Law and Policy Research. Retrieved from https://clpr.org.in/blog/the-sexual-is-political-consent-and-the-transgender-persons-protection-of-rights-act-2019 (Accessed 17 March 2020)

15. Sharma, D. (2019) Determination of Citizenship through Lineage in the Assam NRC is Inherently Exclusionary. The Economic and Political Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.epw.in/engage/article/determination-citizenship-through-lineage-assam-nrc-exclusionary  (Accessed 17 March 2020)

16. K. R., B. (2020) India’s Transgender Community Must Gear Up For A Long Fight. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/transgender-citizenship-amendment-act_in_5e340c60c5b69a19a4ad9e15 (Accessed 17 March 2020)

17. Sahai, V. (2020) The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Centre for Law and Policy Research. Retrieved from https://clpr.org.in/blog/the-sexual-is-political-consent-and-the-transgender-persons-protection-of-rights-act-2019 (Accessed 17 March 2020)

18. Sarfaraz, K. (2020) Transgender, queer groups march against CAA, NRC. Hindustan Times. Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/transgender-queer-groups-march-against-caa-nrc/story-MU5PFAPVbhdLIUT4Q2y2lO.html (Accessed 17 March 2020)

19. Banu, G. (2018) ‘Where Are the Archives of Our Dalit Trans Foremothers and Forefathers?’, ThePrint (blog). Retrieved from https://theprint.in/opinion/dalit-history-month/dalit-trans-resilience-is-a-fight-against-caste-and-patriarchy-though-we-are-missing-from-written-archives/53509/. (Accessed 29 April 2018)

20. Harrison, D. (2019) How rainbow capitalism harms the origins of what pride is about. Bet. Retrieved from https://www.bet.com/style/living/2019/06/07/rainbow-capitalism-is-harmful.html  (Accessed 17 March 2020)

21. Tatchell, P. (2019) Pride has sold its soul to rainbow-branded capitalism The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/28/pride-rainbow-branded-capitalism-stonewall-lgbt (Accessed 17 March 2020)

22. Watta, A. (2019) Is rainbow capitalism truly queer liberation? Gaysi Family. Retrieved from http://gaysifamily.com/2019/06/26/is-rainbow-capitalism-truly-queer-liberation (Accessed 17 March 2020)

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The anthropogenic forcing of greenhouse gases has turned out to be a dominant force propelling sea level rise. Sea levels in the 20th century have been rising at an average rate of 0.06m per decade.¹ The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to threats arising from sea level rise given its demography. The country has a coastline that runs for 7,500 square kilometres. These coastal regions are home to about 170 million people.² Between 1996 and 2016, approximately 236 square kilometres of land was lost to coastal erosion placing people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Based on a government report published in 2016, around 45.5% of India’s coastline has been affected by erosion of varying magnitudes.³ The coastal erosion problem is a complex effect of various natural processes working in the coastal zone and sometimes beyond it. According to recent scientific predictions, 36 million Indians are likely to be living in areas experiencing chronic flooding by 2100.⁴ Increasing climate-induced calamities and accelerating levels of erosion have called for intervention and support from the government in securing the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Existing policies in the country address displacement from rapid-onset disasters such as monsoons and cyclones under disaster reduction and rehabilitation policies. However, displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion are yet to find a place at the policy level. With the intensity and frequency of disasters increasing in the future, we require a foresighted national-level policy on managed retreat and adaptation in India. This paper analyses existing policies and suggests possible adaptation interventions that will help the nation deal better with the problem of coastal displacement. 

We realize that coastal erosion is an extensive and multi-dimensional problem for a vast country like ours. The Indian government has put in place policies, laws and committees to tackle climate change and climate-induced disasters. The main policy measures concerning coastal protection and management in India include the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that has a section dedicated to coastal protection and disaster management and the west coast policies to tackle coastal erosion. The Act provides for the establishment of several statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, State Disaster Management Authorities and District Disaster Management Authorities. It also includes advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the government. The Act lists out the action plan for governments during or post a rapid-onset disaster. It also puts together provisions that allow for the creation of relief funds and their usage during emergencies. The act is inadequate along several lines. The presence of numerous committees and the overlap of duties among authorities mentioned in the Act greatly reduces accountability. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome. Disasters cannot be effectively dealt with only through the government’s administrative setup. Even then the role of local authorities and communities in coastal management and protection has been greatly overlooked. The Indian Act also fails to recognize the need for identifying and using traditional knowledge and working together with NGOs.

Efforts are being made to counter the menace of coastal erosion and protect our coasts using both traditional approaches ( hard structures like Seawall, etc.) and the new, innovative soft measures like dune rehabilitation. Policies to curb coastal erosion on the west coast of the country have dealt with structural or hard measures such as the construction of seawalls, revetment, offshore breakwater, groynes/spurs and soft measures like offshore reefs and artificial headlands. Soft measures are usually more effective in the long run when compared to hard measures. Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing the littoral drift of sand and sediment, thus, causing erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure. In the end, they do not prevent erosion as they only transfer the problem further north of the east coast.⁵ The impact of these hard options on neighbouring coastlines create a situation where hard structures are then required in these new areas creating a vicious cycle. An example of such a spiralling effect is the seawall construction in Kerala  (a state government initiative to curb coastal erosion) and its impact on Karnataka’s coastline. The Kerala government has spent around 310 crores building seawalls along its coast.6 Of the 560 km coastline of Kerala, the state has constructed a seawall for 386 km. The government had sought funding assistance to wall the remaining 92 km and demanded INR 2.16 billion from the Centre. Seawalls along the coast of Kerala did help in preventing coastal erosion but as mentioned earlier the littoral drift was obstructed, accelerating erosion rates of the coastline along the state of Karnataka. Groynes suffer from a similar limitation. These man-made structures protruding into the oceans are known to cause accretion on the southern side and erosion on the northern side. Beach nourishment has proved attainable by methods of re-vegetation with temporary offshore breakwaters/artificial reefs. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for marine biodiversity to flourish. 

The west coast policies and the Disaster Management Act (2005) focus on mitigation measures mainly undertaken by the government thus alienating local communities from related coastal work. It is important to shift our focus from mitigation to adaptation. Intervention and policies for adaptation are extremely crucial given two main reasons. We cannot mitigate sea-level rise. Even if we drastically cut down emissions, experts concluded that global mean sea-level would rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) above 1992 levels by 2100. With high rates of emissions, sea-level rise would be much higher but was unlikely to exceed 6.6 feet higher than 1992 levels. Hence, it is more important to facilitate adaptation than mitigating impacts of sea-level rise. Adaptation policies focusing on alternative livelihoods, social security nets, preemptive retreat and social infrastructure will greatly enhance the resilience capacity of communities thereby enabling better response to a crisis. Existing policies in India address post-disaster management or displacement stemming from rapid-onset disasters but displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion is yet to find a place in Indian policy. Slow onset events are impacting lives and livelihoods leading to the weakening of a community’s resilience. It is important to identify vulnerable areas and build the capacity of local communities to efficiently manage future crises and prevent large scale life and material loss. The second reason comes from the unpredictability that haunts us. Climate change is complex because every system disturbance sets in motion positive and negative feedback. Interactions of various levels create unpredictable events and large scale destruction. The unpredictable nature of climate change and lag is a lesson to build resilience rather than focus on measures that only handle rehabilitation post-disaster. 

Shining a ray of hope on this oncoming crisis is the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, focusing on better protection, conservation, rehabilitation, management and policy design of the coast. NCSCM aims to support integrated management of coastal and marine environments for livelihood security, sustainable development and hazard risk management by enhancing knowledge, research and advisory support, partnerships and network and coastal community interface. NCSCM has the resources for data monitoring and the mission has started on a good note by tackling the issue of defining High Tide Lines (HTL) and putting forward revised regulations for keeping a check on polluting industries/activities and construction activity along critical coastal areas. Though the vision of this institutional regime is applaudable, little has been done on the ground. The notification though uses terminologies like sustainable development, sustainable livelihood, ecologically and culturally sensitive coastal resources, fails to detail the implementation strategies for each of them.⁷ The mission stands great potential in developing into the institutional setup that India needs in developing and implementing adaptation interventions. However, this is conditional on its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals on environmental sustainability and its focus on the long term impacts of all developmental work in the coastal zones of the country. 

Coastal communities are directly impacted by climate impacts causing declining productivity of fisheries and cultivation lands along the coasts. Existing measures do not help communities in dealing with economic losses. Understanding threats to the economic and social well being of the communities underlines the need for adaptation policies that will help reduce the climate vulnerability of communities and enhance their ability to flexibly adapt to changing conditions. Policies which create alternate livelihood opportunities, social infrastructure, planned retreat, and community involved coastal management need to find a place in India’s climate legislations.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

Bibliography:

  1.  Rahmstorf, S. (2008, July). The 5 Most Important Datasets of Climate Science. http://www.ozean-klima.de/.
  2. Panda, A. (2020, May 26). Climate change, displacement, and managed retreat in coastal India – India. ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/india/climate-change-displacement-and-managed-retreat-coastal-india#:~:text=India’s%20more%20than%207%2C500%20square,related%20to%20sea%2Dlevel%20rise.&text=Beyond%20displacement%20and%20migration%20along,relocation%20in%20major%20coastal%20cities
  3.  Status Report on Coastal Protection & Development in India Central Water Commission New Delhi .(2016). http://old.cwc.gov.in/CPDAC-Website/Paper_Research_Work/Status_Report_on%20_Coastal_Protection_and%20_Development_in%20_India_2016.pdf
  4. NOAA Climate.gov. (2020, August 14).Climate Change: Global Sea Level | NOAA Climate.gov.www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level.
  5. Masselink, G., & Lazarus, E. (2019). Defining Coastal Resilience. Water, 11(12), 2587. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/w11122587
  6. Warrier, S. G., Aggarwal, M., Aggarwal, M., Sarkar, S., Sarkar, S., Padmanaban, D., … Gopal, S. (2016, November 9). Walls can’t keep out the sea in Kerala. India Climate Dialogue. https://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2016/11/09/cant-keep-out-the-sea-kerala/. 
  7. Krishnamurthy, R., DasGupta, R., Chatterjee, R., & Shaw, R. (2014). Managing the Indian coast in the face of disasters & climate change: A review and analysis of India’s coastal zone management policies. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 18(6), 657-672. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24760673
  8. E. Vivekanandan. Impact of Climate Change in the Indian Marine Fisheries and the Potential Adaptation Options. core.ac.uk/download/pdf/33018848.pdf. 
  9. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed. (2018). Community-based rehabilitation attempt for solution of climate displacement crisis in the coastal area of Bangladesh. 1. 358. 10.1504/IJMRM.2018.10016042. 
  10. Inti Carro, et al.,(2012, August 18) Building capacity on ecosystem-based adaptation strategy to cope with extreme events and sea-level rise on the Uruguayan coast ISSN: 1756-8692 Publication date: https://www.emerald.com/insight/search?q=Inti%20Carro
  11. Climate Change Adaptation in Fisheries and Aquaculture: Compilation of initial examples, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular No. 1088, Clare Shelton,ISSN 2070-6065 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3569e.pdf
  12. Podesta, John. (2019, September 4)“The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees.” Brookings.www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/..
  13.  Alongi, D.M. Mangrove forests: Resilience, protection from tsunamis, and responses to global climate change. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. (2008), 76, 1–13
  14.  Das S (2009) Addressing coastal vulnerability at the village level: The role of socio-economic and physical factors. Working paper series No. E/295/2009. 
  15. Alongi, Daniel. (2002). Present State and Future of the World’s Mangrove Forests. Environmental Conservation. 29. 331 – 349. 10.1017/S0376892902000231.
  16. Kantamaneni, K., Sudha Rani, N. N. V., Rice, L., Sur, K., Thayaparan, M., Kulatunga, U., Rege, R., et al. (2019). A Systematic Review of Coastal Vulnerability Assessment Studies along Andhra Pradesh, India: A Critical Evaluation of Data Gathering, Risk Levels and Mitigation Strategies. Water, 11(2), 393. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/w11020393
  17. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed & Molla, Morshed. (2017). Sustainable adaptation for resolving climate displacement issues of south eastern islands in Bangladesh. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management. 9. 10.1108/IJCCSM-02-2017-0026.
  18. Ministry of Environment and Forests (Department of Environment, Forests and Wildlife). (2011, Jan 6).Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. www.iczmpwb.org/main/pdf/czm_laws/CRZ%20Notification%202011.pdf.

How would you define poverty? There are several definitions and each one of them helps us imagine poverty in different ways. One way to define poverty is the lack of resources required to lead a basic life. By this definition, as long as your basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, you are not in poverty. The United Nations defines poverty as the “inability of having choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity.” A more quantitative definition from the World Bank defines poverty as living under $1.90 (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. This is the international poverty line. Amartya Sen’s capability approach describes poverty as “a failure to achieve certain minimum capabilities.” This means that poverty is not seen purely as an issue of economic development but includes measures of human rights and access.

It does not take long to realize that poverty has many faces. In a recent project called One Hundred Homes, researchers conducted a visual survey of India to examine what a household falling under a particular income or consumption level as per a standard government survey (IHDS, NSS) would look like in real life. The result was a collection of hundred visual essays showcasing the living conditions of families to understand the connection between wealth and poverty visually. A key insight is that it is almost impossible to predict which household is wealthier just based on the appearance of living conditions. We cannot simply look at assets owned to determine who is better off or worse off. Surveys usually measure poverty through consumption spending in a given period of time on a fixed category of things. This does not account for the value of the house, credit borrowed, subsidies received from the government, etc. In addition to this, the poverty line in itself is based on several assumptions such as calorie requirements and ignores indicators of education, health and wellbeing.

Figure 1: A snapshot from the One Hundred Homes project website (Source: One Hundred Homes)

Poverty, through its appearance and measurement, presents several puzzles. Some obvious facts about poverty may not be true. On the other hand, results from experiments to understand the lives of the poor may be counterintuitive.

For example, one knows about the vicious nature of poverty. But why do the poor remain poor? Do bad decisions cause poverty or does poverty cause people to make bad decisions? Sendhil Mullainathan and other researchers ran a series of experiments to understand how scarcity affects cognitive capability and decision making. For an illustration of how poverty affects thinking, they asked people to memorize a list of words similar to the one below in 20 seconds and asked them to recall as many as they can from memory.

Figure 2: List used by researchers in the experiment to determine effects of poverty on cognitive capacity (Source: Chicago Booth Review)

What’s interesting is that, although “money” was not on the list, people with low income are more likely to remember seeing money in the list than people with high income because words on the list are related to financial concerns. This portrays that money occupies a significant part of the cognitive load of the poor. Further, experiments also depict that people under financial stress perform poorly in cognitive tests such as Raven’s matrices and cognitive control tasks compared to those who are not. This implies that poverty in itself impairs sound cognitive performance. 

A more realistic experiment conducted on Indian sugarcane farmers tested their cognitive abilities pre-harvest and post-harvest. Sugarcane has one harvest cycle per year. Before the harvest, farmers are relatively poor and uncertain about their finances whereas post-harvest, the same farmer is relatively rich. A random sample of small farmers was tested pre- and post-harvest on Raven’s matrices, a measure of fluid intelligence and the traditional Stroop task, which gauges cognitive control. Controlling for other fixed effects such as nutrition, work effort, etc., the experiment showed that being poor reduces cognitive capacity. Farmers post-harvest performed better on cognitive tests compared to pre-harvest.

This research suggests that the poor are less capable not because of their inherent capabilities but because poverty in itself imposes a cognitive load. Imagine if you were to make a decision after staying awake an entire night. Would you be able to make the right decision? The effect of poverty on cognitive function is comparable to losing a full night’s sleep. The poor constantly make important decisions of education, health, consumption and saving in this state of mind. The implication of this is that policymakers need to be aware of the psychological nature and cognitive tax of poverty. Welfare programs with complex ordeals aimed at better targeting may be counterproductive. The timing of welfare policies is also critical. Cognitive aids such as nudge can go a long way in offsetting the effect of poverty on cognition.

This also begs the question, why do the poor have to make more decisions than the rich with regards to essential utilities like savings, healthcare, insurance and so on? A poor person, who may not have access to banking services or formal employment, must decide to save for his or her retirement. On the other hand, the decision is already made by the organization of a rich person through the provident fund. The same goes for insurance, healthcare and even water. A rich person in an urban area can simply open a tap in the comfort of their home and clean water flows out, whereas a poor person has to choose where to procure water from, uncertain of whether it is clean or not, and decide what to do if it is not clean. Poverty impedes cognitive function and affects decision making. Above this, the poor make a significantly greater number of decisions amidst a lot of uncertainty. Both these facts are detrimental to leading a good life. Human beings have bounded rationality and self-control problems, hence fewer the decisions, the better. This is the reason why in developed countries like the United States, essential utilities such as insurance, savings are left to institutions and not the individual. If a poor person has to consistently choose to save every month for his or her retirement, they are bound to run into self-control problems. It is unfortunate that despite evidence on this, policymakers have made little effort to minimize the decisions taken by the poor. What, if not this, is an indication of inequality?

Another puzzle is that of risk and entrepreneurship. More number of poor people are self-employed and own businesses compared to the rich. Entrepreneurship involves risk and uncertainty. If the rich are better at managing risk due to their endowments and safety net, why is it that more poor people start businesses than the rich? This is the mystery of self-employment. That a person for whom it is easier is less likely to do it whereas a person for whom it is harder is more likely to do it.

A possible explanation for this is that the poor are natural entrepreneurs. But the question to ask is whether poor people are creative or does poverty force them to find creative ways of earning their income? This is not to say that poor people cannot be creative. An average poor person is probably as creative as the average rich person. However, there is an overrepresentation of entrepreneurs among the poor. The poor are entrepreneurs not because they want to be, but because they have to be. 

Economics teaches us that people are generally risk-averse. So, they must prefer a salaried job to starting a business. A survey question asking parents regarding their ambitions for their children confirms this belief. The results from rural Udaipur and around the world are that most poor parents want their children to be in a salaried job. Only 7% of parents want their children to run businesses. For the poor, a job is a means to achieve stability and move up the social ladder. However, public policy does not seem to understand this. The policy view is that poor people are more entrepreneurial in nature and several policies have been created to encourage the poor to turn into entrepreneurs. Rural areas have the RSETIs (Rural Self Employment Training Institutes), which focus on providing training for rural youth on entrepreneurial development. There is no such equivalent for urban areas. However, for the urban poor specifically, there is a Self-Employment Programme (SEP) under the NULM, which provides financial assistance to set up self-employment ventures.

From my field experiences of visiting and working with SHGs (self-help groups) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the thrust has been for SHGs to begin businesses. NABARD, NRLM and civil society are invested in this idea, providing loans and market support. It is likely that most of the SHGs are not even interested in business but have to involve themselves in order to take advantage of the credit and market support. Even in the recent COVID relief package by the Government of India, the specific relief measure for SHGs was to increase the collateral-free loan limit to Rs. 20 lakh so as to meet their business needs. This differential focus on self-employment for the poor is concerning. 

Additionally, the traditional investment theory of risk-reward ratio does not work for the poor because of capital and technological constraints. Most businesses owned by poor people are not profitable. Different occupations are filled with different amounts of risk and uncertainty. Agriculture is one of the riskiest, yet least profitable occupations. Agriculture is subject to whether uncertainty, price uncertainty, market uncertainty, credit uncertainty, government uncertainty and what not! Hence, a poor farmer is not the same as a poor plumber and public policy needs to give attention to this fact. A reason why agriculture is one of the most intervened sectors by the government is not just populism but also the level of uncertainty tagged with the occupation.

There are many more such puzzles in the world of poverty. To unearth these puzzles, we need to rigorously test the traditional theories we hold about the poor. In a developing world, everybody is undergoing a transformation, with the poor transforming at a faster rate at the margin. Thus, we not only need to ask the right questions but also revisit the existing answers to update our understanding of poverty. Each piece of evidence gives us insights into the lives of the poor and incorporating these insights helps us create better poverty alleviation policies.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

On 24th March, 2020, the Indian government announced the imposition of a complete lockdown in the country as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As important as it was to enforce a lockdown, it was equally important to think of the unintended consequences that could result from it. In particular, it was important to think about the effect of a hastily implemented lockdown on vulnerable sections of society who live a hand-to-mouth existence and already lie on the margins of government support. The migrant workers are one such section, who were left to suffer in starvation, stranded, with no income, food and shelter. A lack of information and political will, exacerbated by the rigid framework for disaster management characterized the government’s slow response, forcing Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) across the country to immediately intervene and take up the challenge of delivering relief to those in need. However, confronted with resource and infrastructural constraints, this type of relief delivery proved to be unsustainable. The suffering that resulted was nothing less than unimaginable, and can make one see, more clearly than ever, that when a crisis breaks out, relief delivery must be as fast as possible. In this context, I attempt to emphasize three interwoven gaps which need to be addressed, as a stepping stone towards quicker and more efficient relief delivery – Discretion, Data and Trust.

Understanding the Hurdles

As it usually does during disasters, the Indian government invoked the National Disaster Management Act (2005) as a framework for disaster management. In light of how the situation was handled, it becomes apparent to us that the administrative and operational procedures under this act are far too rigid to effectively address the mass hunger crisis that the lockdown imposed on migrant welfare. It took over five days for the Centre to declare the provision of any kind of relief for these people, and even with this announcement of free food, problems of information asymmetry and beneficiary identification still persisted. How would migrants know where to go to avail of these provisions? Did all of them know of its existence? This relief response characterizes the myopic top-down approach that the government tends to take, with heavy paperwork and a lack of urgency. For a response to be quick and meaningful, we need insights that are inspired by the ground reality of the situation. However, the lack of discretionary powers at the local levels of government prevents the realization of these insights. This stems from a lack of trust in local governments from the upper levels of the bureaucracy.

The next problem we are confronted with is a lack of credible data on potential beneficiaries. Without complete information on which people need relief and which areas are affected, it would be difficult for any agent of relief delivery to identify beneficiaries and efficiently allocate resources to different localities. This issue can be seen in the way the Public Distribution System (PDS) functioned to distribute dry rations to poverty-stricken populations. The limitation with PDS was that workers were only entitled to these rations in their home states, which essentially excludes migrant workers from accessing these benefits. Although the PDS system was eventually extended to include temporary beneficiaries, it remains that there was no clear cut mechanism to identify who needs it. There is also no credible data on the number of people who actually benefited from this provision. This problem is not even solved by CSOs in the way they operate, in that they lack the infrastructure to conduct essential surveys to gauge the extent of the problem in each area and coordinate amongst each other. As a consequence, all CSOs and State agents could potentially be targeting the same forty-percent of the population repeatedly, leaving the remaining sixty percent with no access. On top of this, CSOs had faced backlash from law enforcement officials for violating lockdown norms, restricting them from reaching people in need.

The major constraints faced by CSOs and governments are in the form of information and infrastructure. Moreover, due to a lack of credible data and the precedent of slow responses by the government, CSOs will not stand aside and trust the government to do its job. These are gaps that those on the ground are well aware of, and is in fact the very reason that they exist to fill them. Trust is a nuance of the problem that shows up in many ways in the intricate picture of relief delivery. We see a lack of trust not only in lower levels of government from the bureaucracy, but also a lack of trust in the bureaucracy from first-responder CSOs. Overall, it appears that Discretion, Data, and Trust, lie at the root cause of slow relief delivery.

Overcoming the Hurdles

In crisis situations, there is some potential in collaboration between CSOs and governments, where CSOs can serve as a channel for surveying and data collection, and the government can provide them with infrastructural support in the form of access and resources. The most effective way to mobilize CSOs would be through local governments. However, we see from the problem articulated above that discretion becomes a necessary condition to leverage local governments. A decentralized bottom-up approach would allow local governments to facilitate a process of community mobilization and collaboration through CSOs and engage a much larger group of people to help facilitate quicker relief. It would also give local government officials a more participatory role in judgement and decision making on the ground. Here of course, the problem of trust and accountability creeps up once again. With the right checks and balances in place, giving more discretion to local governments to utilize government funds would help to provide infrastructural support to CSOs. These organizations can then be sent on the ground in addition to existing government human resources to survey areas and collect data on affected population. The additional government backing would allow CSOs to reach areas that were previously inaccessible. It would also allow us to capture a more realistic picture of the on-ground situation within its own context, and enable us to respond in a more appropriate, effective manner through local governments. These surveys should be designed in a manner that holistically captures the need of a potential beneficiary, keeping in mind that the notion of ‘poverty’ is a fluid state.  The data collected from these surveys could be reported to local government officials, who can mobilize the necessary resources and funds, after understanding the situation in their areas. This increase in coordination would help in understanding which areas are getting too much attention at the expense of others. Moreover, since the CSOs themselves are collecting the data, it would add a significant amount of credibility, trust and understanding of the situation on-ground.

Conclusion

The nature of collaboration suggested here is intended to be inclusive, collaborative and is founded on trust. With trust, comes the willingness to allow discretion. With discretion, there is a strong possibility of more effective data collection. However, a simple relaxation of bureaucratic hurdles is not a sufficient condition for this. The system is plagued with a lack of transparency and accountability, both of which are detrimental to any form of trust. Issues on this front become increasingly complex with each day, in a world where realities are constantly distorted by conflict and propaganda. One thing that is certain, however, is that people have suffered, and continue to suffer. It is time for us to realistically and practically acknowledge what is going wrong and commit to putting aside our vested interests, in pursuit of collective good. We must develop the political will to step up, and come together in times of crisis.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.