South Asia / 15.06.2018

Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women. Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature. More at: https://swarajyamag.com/culture/krishna-through-the-hands-of-muslim-artists ...

Reflections / 20.12.2017

By Anjum Altaf [This is the text of the 16th Hamza Alavi Distinguished Lecture delivered in Karachi on December 16, 2017, under the auspices of the Irtiqa Institute for Social Sciences and the Hamza Alavi Foundation. The lecture was delivered in Urdu and does not follow the order of the formal written version. A video of the lecture is accessible at the Irtiqa Facebook page.] An important strand of Hamza Alavi’s work was about change and the agency for change as attested by the two well-known hypotheses associated with his name – those of the middle peasantry (1965) and of the salariat (1987). I intend to use these as the point of departure to offer some tentative reflections on the nature of change and on the scenarios facing us today in Pakistan and more generally across the world. Economics, the Importance of Rules, and Collective Agency My own academic...

Development / 14.06.2017

By Anjum Altaf It is good that inequality is attracting attention in Pakistan because there are significant gaps in our understanding of the phenomenon. What is under scrutiny in the West is economic inequality which is only one aspect and that too a rather peculiar one. Inequality has at least two other important dimensions - political and social. Political inequality refers to unequal say in choosing how one wishes to be governed and within the representative form of governance such equality is now ensured by giving every citizen a vote. Although the struggle for political equality goes back at least four centuries, its full achievement is quite recent. Very few are aware that only around 15 percent of the adult population was eligible to vote in the 1946 elections in India. Women obtained political equality as late as the 1940s in some European countries and Blacks...

Cities/Urban / 21.11.2015

By Anjum Altaf Let me explain. Imagine a number of you are in a boat out at sea and a hole opens up in the bottom. If everyone waits for another to do something, everyone will drown. Someone will have to do something for a chance of survival. Right? Now extend the metaphor to your community or your country where a number of big holes have opened up in the bottom. And there is no one plugging the holes. In fact, there are a lot of people enlarging them instead. All of you are intelligent. What do you see as the likely outcome? The point I am making is the following. Most societies have their share of activists motivated by all sorts of reasons. Their presence makes it possible for the majority to go on with their day to day engagements confident that even if they do nothing the...

Behavior / 19.03.2015

By Anjum Altaf The India-Bangladesh match ended predictably but in Pakistan its off-field resonance was of greater interest. All the ambivalent feelings about India and Bangladesh that are otherwise submerged bubbled to the surface. It was a rich occasion for some casual explorations in social attitudes. My limited sample revealed two sets of observations – those on which there was relative agreement and those where opinions were more divided. The first set comprised the following: First, a sense of pride that four South Asian teams had made it to the quarter finals of a major world championship. It was encouraging evidence of a South Asian consciousness amongst people many of whom had not seen more than one or two cities in their own country. Second, a fairly objective assessment of the quality of the four teams based purely on their track record. Most people ranked India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan,...

Development / 05.08.2014

By Anjum Altaf ‘BIPS’ refers to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – the most populous countries in South Asia. ‘Games’ refers to the Commonwealth Games, the last of which concluded on the weekend in Glasgow. ‘Puzzles’ refers to the intriguing questions revealed by the Games about BIPS. The specific puzzle we explore in this post is why the performance of Indian women is so much better than that of the other countries when the human development indicators of India are fairly similar to Bangladesh and Pakistan and actually much worse than those of Sri Lanka. For the sake of reference, the human development indicators as presented by Jean Dreze Amartya Sen are shown in the following table. At one level this post is a straightforward update of two earlier posts that had crafted a narrative from the results of the Commonwealth games up to 2010. The first, Pakistan: Falling Off...

Behavior / 18.06.2014

By Anjum Altaf A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me: He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her. This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows: “He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.” One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in...

Reflections / 30.03.2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t. I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding? Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in...

Education / 15.02.2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question. And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer: Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate. Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius. On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty? Here was the answer to that question: We...

South Asia / 23.08.2013

By Sakuntala Narasimhan A report published earlier this month says the number of cases of dengue in Karnataka has tripled during June-July, with Bangalore accounting for a majority of victims. Even residents in upper middle class neighbourhoods are succumbing, thanks to a huge garbage pile up that made news even in newspapers in the US. In the first six months of 2013 alone, Karnataka saw 3243 cases of dengue (the official figure - the real numbers are thought to be higher). Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, too had over 21,290 cases of dengue in 2011. Around 350 died. As in Bangalore, the Lahore authorities too tried fogging to kill larvae, but what really helped was the innovative use of smart phones, to trace locations and clusters of incidence, and focusing on those neighbourhoods. Result: last year there were no dengue deaths. It took just 1500...