On Aspiration and Discrimination: The Janaagraha-Brown India Initiative Citizenship Index

Ascendent dreams

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The Brown-India Initiative, a new research hub for the study of India at Brown University, has a predilection for cities. Citing a prediction that half of India’s population (currently 1.2 billion people and rising) will be urban by the year 2030, the Initiative has set out to examine how cities respond to the influx of people from rural areas. The urbanization trend carries challenges for both governance and infrastructure, and the demographic shifts may alter the languages, caste distinctions and regional traits of contemporary India as we known her.

Chief among the India Initiative’s inquiries is the manifestation of citizenship in urban areas. Their interest goes beyond the status of simply being a citizen of the country to consider the associated rights, privileges, and responsibilities of citizenship. Where does citizenship begin—is it the responsibility of the citizen towards the state, or the state towards her public? Does each behavior reciprocate the other? And how does aspiration differ among various castes, generations, and classes?

In a country as colossal and diverse as India, measuring these aspects of citizenship presents a substantial challenge. The India Initiative has partnered with Janaagraha, a civil society organization in Bangalore, to create a citizenship survey to record specific elements they deem integral to citizenship. These elements include participation in the political process and civil society, interaction with state services, and perception of discrimination. Taken all together, they provide a comparative index for citizenship.

The citizenship survey faces plenty of hurdles in its implementation. Many of the areas to be surveyed lack street signs or residential distinctions—in what is called spatial illegibility. In these contexts, municipal officials and outsiders may have difficulty navigating and identifying wards and their inhabitants (whereas local knowledge of the area does not rely on a standardized system of geographical indicators). The survey was recently piloted in Bangalore and has to be revised and shortened before it is carried out in full. It will then travel to seven other cities in India, requiring local knowledge and organizational partners in each. These inter-city data will allow for the comparison of city size in relation to civic consciousness, as well as population trends and distinctions, and the nature of India’s urban experience.

Though it may be visibly imperceptible, caste—and its discriminatory organizing principles—is deeply felt in individual and institutional ways. In a 2004 study, researchers performed an experiment with a group of high-caste and low-caste students. Initially the castes of the students were not revealed, and when given a test, the students showed no gap in performance with regard to caste. However, when caste was made public prior to the test, the lower-caste students performed far worse than their high-caste counterparts. The study points to the psychologically ingrained nature of caste, and the ways in which caste hierarchies become self-fulfilling prophesies. But while individuals may subconsciously reveal the impact of caste via their own behaviors, deliberately surveying and apprehending awareness of caste and caste discrimination make for a particular challenge for the India Initiative’s citizenship index.

In this piece, we hear from Siddharth Swaminathan of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Patrick Heller of Brown University, and Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha.

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