Discrimination despite Development: Women’s Position in India

Although the causes remain unclear, India, considered by most a progressive and tolerant nation, is witnessing a sudden spate of violent crimes against women. Earlier in June, a survey of 370 gender specialists found India to be the worst place to be a woman among all the G-20 countries (a list that also includes Saudi Arabia). Just last week, an 18-year-old in Assam, a state in northeastern India, was molested by a mob of 20 men. While people standing around clearly had enough time to record a video, no one bothered to call the police. Public apathy notwithstanding, official inaction has also contributed to a steadily deteriorating situation. A few months back, police in Gurgaon advised women against venturing out after 8 pm. In February, the government of West Bengal reacted to the gang-rape of a young woman by accusing the victim of having ‘loose morals’ and being part of a conspiracy that would discredit the Chief Minister of the state.

It is not only violent crimes that are commonplace, other kinds of (non-violent) crimes—commonly referred to as “eve-teasing”—are a part of many women’s daily existence while out at work or on public transport, and include being subjected to sexually suggestive remarks and unwanted physical contact. The expression of discomfort by many women led the Delhi Metro to designate separate, women-only carriages on the train. However, as many have rightly claimed, separation of the sexes is not something that increases tolerance. An anonymous blog post by a woman highlights how her ride in the Delhi metro turned nasty when she did not board the ladies’ carriage of the train and instead traveled in the general compartment.

Indeed, it does seem that crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1% hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011. The biggest leaps occurred in cases under “the dowry prohibition act,” which classifies the act of giving or take dowry, as well as violent acts towards a woman after marriage in order to demand material goods from her family as a criminal act (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year), and of rape (up 9.2%).

India Crime Rates. Source: Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova (2011).

These disturbing trends raise the question of why crime against women has being rising in India. This is all the more puzzling given the overall decrease in other kinds of crime (see figure).

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When Is Big Data Enough Data?

Big data has arrived. And I am not the one only saying so. The New York Times , The Economist, The Wall-Street Journal, TED,  and many others have all run recent pieces on this topic. But the practical and ethical implications of this trend are as yet not well-defined.

Big data is a loosely-defined term that refers to data that is often unstructured, such as text, images, archives, web logs, among others. Big data, as its name suggests, comes in voluminous quantities. Structured and unstructured data are available more readily than ever before and, perhaps most importantly, the computer-assisted means to crunch all these pieces and bits of data are becoming more common and more powerful.

Political Science is not adrift of this revolution. It is no coincidence that the New York Times piece about the Big Data trend highlighted political scientists:

Justin Grimmer, for example, is one of the new breed of political scientists. A   28-year-old assistant professor at Stanford, he combined math with political science in his undergraduate and graduate studies, seeing “an opportunity because the discipline is becoming increasingly data-intensive.” His research involves the computer-automated analysis of blog postings, Congressional speeches and press releases, and news articles, looking for insights into how political ideas spread.

And the piece continues:

 “It’s a revolution,” says Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “We’re really just getting under way. But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

While the Big Data trend has made its way into political science, I would argue that it has been restricted to those in the discipline primarily concerned with methodology and research design. So far, substantive knowledge on comparative politics, American politics, and other subfields has not been greatly influenced by the influx of new sources of data.

But governments are not moving at the same pace as the discipline. In Brazil, the government is in fact moving faster.

In recent years, the Brazilian federal government has been making available online an impressive amount of electoral, budgetary, geographic, social and economic data on Brazil. The country has no doubt come a long way since 1990 when the census was delayed a full year due to mismanagement and political maneuvers – breaking the 10-year census periodicity that had been established in 1940.

The recent Law of Access to Information has made this trend of open governance combined with huge amounts of data even more salient. As of 16th May 2012, the federal government and many state and municipal governments are making data available online about their budgets, bureaucracies, and employees. Moreover, citizens now have an online tool to demand more information.

The most controversial example of the manner in which this law has been enforced come from the São Paulo Municipal Chamber. All of the Chamber’s personnel have had their names, official job titles, and detailed paychecks made public on the Internet.

It is not difficult to image what has happened since. In such an unequal country, in which citizens’ opinions of the legislative power oscillate from complete execration to total obliviousness, most people were outraged at the high paychecks and apparent distortions. An average municipal legislator in São Paulo makes seven times more than the average per capita income in São Paulo (about one thousand reais per month, a little less than 500 dollars).  But, somewhat surprisingly, the main targets of public discussion were the Chamber’s employees’ salaries. More specifically, a garage manager and a nurse who received eighteen times more than the average income were used over and over again as symbols of the misuse of taxpayers’ money (read about this in the Brazilian media and The Economist).

The public employees’ unions and professional associations argued that the information on salaries could harm the safety of these workers since most of them are clearly well-off compared to most Brazilians.  But, given the somewhat widespread, stereotypical impression shared by many Brazilians that public employees are a privileged bunch, with unfair retirement and vacation benefits and less-than-demanding jobs, their complaints fell on deaf-ears. The publication of the information was seen as an exposé of the alleged unfairness and distortions of the public system.

These events raise at least two issues related to the rise of Big Data in governments. First, we might have more data than ever, but are we asking the right questions with this data? Second, public and private data are not always clear-cut distinctions: are we crossing the line in how we use public data?

Here I will focus only on the second question and leave the first (more difficult) one for a future post.

As a researcher very much in love with big data sets, I cannot say that I do not appreciate this new development. And, I would go even further:  I would love access, like Piketty and Saez had in the United States, to IRS data on income. Their work has been highly influential in informing us about the growing inequality between the top 1% and the bottom 99%.

But we could all use a bit of common sense: is it necessary, for the sake of transparency, to release the full names and the salaries of the employees online? Would it not suffice to have the public employees’ paychecks, organized by job titles and a sort of identification code (the last three digits of their social identification number, for instance)? Is it necessary to put the public employees in a potentially dangerous position or, to say the least, make them socially uncomfortable?

After all, the government’s transparency is not about the individual – not most of the time, anyway. Institutions and elected officials should be held accountable, not individuals or common citizens – at least not in this case. Public employees, unless proven otherwise, are not unlawfully receiving their salaries. Government transparency and data on government are laudable goals, but there are lines that should not be crossed.

Ironically, the garage manager, who received more than 18 times the average income in São Paulo and became the symbol of distortion in the public system, was actually not working in the garage anymore. He was an aide to a councilman and his pay was about seven thousand reais, just slightly higher than the Chamber’s average of six thousand and five hundred reais (approximately 3 thousand dollars). This correction timidly made the news, but it did not make the headlines.

The Syrian Army is in Big Trouble

Members of the Syrian opposition placing an I.E.D. (Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press).

A few days ago, C.J. Chivers wrote a fascinating report in the New York Times about how the Syrian opposition has taken to manufacturing–and using–bombs or improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s). This strategy has proven extremely effective and Assad’s army is struggling to find solutions. On his website, Chivers expanded on this point:

Once the armed opposition mastered the I.E.D. and spiked with bombs much of the very ground that any military seeking to control Syria must cover, and Syria’s army lacked a deep bench of well-trained explosive ordnance disposal teams and the suites of electronic and defensive equipment for its vehicles to survive, then the end was written. Because the Syrian army is fucked. And its troop must know it.

While this is a remarkable turn of events after the past few months, it should not really come as a big surprise for students of civil war, conflict, and counter-insurgency operations (COIN). Once the insurgents gain the proper tools, as the Syrian rebels have, COIN becomes difficult to pursue effectively, regardless of the identity of the state in the incumbent position.

The question then shifts, instead, to how long the incumbent will last. This is where the political science of COIN becomes more inexact (though much good work–too much to cite fully here–does exist). If the United States, with its strategic know-how and material capability, struggles with these campaigns, it is not to difficult to imagine how Syria will perform. As Chivers notes, the Syrian army lacks much of the capability that would have made them effective counter-insurgents. For this reason, even though the army is likely to continue its lethal dose of violence for the foreseeable future, it now seems as if, thanks at least in part to these I.E.D.s, the effectiveness of this violence has an expiration date.

For more random reflections on COIN and other subjects, follow William on Twitter.

Should Dictators Get Their Own Club Med?

Last year, I was sitting at a restaurant table with some of academia’s top international relations scholars, discussing events in Libya. The suggestion was put forth, half in jest: Why not create an island in the South Pacific as a refuge of sorts for overthrown dictators? After all, Tunisia’s Ben-Ali had just fled to Saudi Arabia. Mubarak had escaped to Sharm el-Sheikh. And other despots, along with their families, were eyeballing ways to exit the scene gracefully.

Would handing out one-way tickets to some desert island be good for governments looking to avoid protracted conflicts and move on? It might mean that the International Criminal Court (ICC) would have to stop issuing arrest warrants for war criminals. It might also mean that current dictators might be more bloodthirsty since they know they can retire with a daiquiri in hand – this is the equivalent of Yeltsin demanding immunity from his successor for himself and his corrupt family to enable him to rest (or at least play lots of tennis) in retirement.

But should dictators be given their own exclusive Club Med? After all, the Mo Ibrahim prize is similar, as it essentially pays African strongmen to step down – they get to cash their $5 million checks, regardless of past human rights abuses. And most would argue that the initiative is a good thing for transitional democracy there.

Or consider the Assad regime in Syria. It still has not been charged with war crimes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The Arab League has offered it a “safe exit,” presumably to Moscow, one of the last remaining places of refuge where Assad is not hated (As Matt Frei quipped on the Diane Rehm show: “I know it’s not London, it’s not Paris, the shoe shopping is not quite the same, but your wife will be happier there than she will be in dungeon in Damascus.”).

Arguments for an Island of Elba of sorts for fleeing strongmen are two-fold: a) the kind of violence meted out to Qaddafi, while perhaps cathartic, does not bode well for transitional democracy (had the Ceausescus been allowed to flee to Guam, instead of shot in cold blood, maybe Romania might have had a smoother transition to post-communist government); and b) the trials of ex-dictators can often backfire and be used to pour salt on wounds (the trials of Saddam and Milosevic come to mind – one was rushed and during the other, the defendant died halfway through).

Strangely, Saudi Arabia of all places has emerged as the retirement home, or Florida, of ex-dictators  (or if you need good medical treatment, it’s Cleveland – as evidenced by Egypt’s Omar Suleiman and Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev, both who received medical treatment there before kicking the bucket), which can’t offer great beaches or a boozy nightlife. Last time I checked there were no overwater bungalows in Jeddah. It’s not clear how Idi Amin spent his last few days. The House of Saud has often offered safe haven to those leaders with whom it enjoyed cordial relations (but notably it did not extend an invitation to Qaddafi), even if Saudis were not always on board. Other dictators have sought out comfier environments. Paris was the exile of choice for Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The “Shah” of Iran landed in Panama (en route to Egypt), Ferdinand Marcos ended up in Hawaii, and Congo’s Mobuto Seso Seko settled down in Morocco.

Giving dictators an easier retirement plan would be bad for long-term healing and transitional justice but good for immediate cessation of violence and short-term democracy building. The unintended consequence is that today’s worst human rights abusers – the Robert Mugabes out there — would have little incentive to temper their violence, seeing how they can retire peacefully and never atone for their sins. But it’s unclear that the Sword of Damocles-like threat of an ICC indictment is having much impact on reforming authoritarian behavior (see Sudan). The best example of a reformed regime out there is Burma, and its junta was not tried for crimes against humanity.

When revolution strikes, perhaps it makes sense to have a more formalized mechanism for giving the ruling family a safe exit, even if it means a one-way ticket to some faraway island and a safe haven from being prosecuted by some Baltasar Garzon-like magistrate (the fates of Charles Taylor and Pinochet would sadly become a thing of the past). It might not be fair, but it may beat the alternative of letting them hang around to fight it out.

U.S.-Pakistan Tensions: Art Depicting Reality?

An ABC television show premiering this fall opens with a U.S. nuclear submarine captain defying White House orders to launch a nuclear strike against Pakistan. Created by Shawn Ryan, “Last Resort” follows the crew as they are declared an enemy of the U.S. and set up camp on an island (now with nuclear capability).

While the pilot episode has received much acclaim in the U.S. media, the reception in Pakistan has been less than stellar.

The Rightist newspaper The Nation ran a letter-to-the-editor which stated that

Most of Pakistanis might not like the movie “Last Resort”, but I think it’s a blessing in disguise. It shows us the real worth of Pakistan for US. It also depicts the mindset of their society and their feelings towards Pakistan.

Another online newspaper had a similarly strong reaction:

No columnist or intellect needs to appraise the nation of destructive mindset of some Americans who even advocates use nuclear weapons against Pakistan.

Now a US filmmaker has made a Drama series titled “The Last Resort” which ended up with producing the idea of bombing Pakistan with nuclear weapons to save the US.

Online forums are abuzz with talk of the show, with some asking whether the show’s premise is a way of “preparing” the U.S. public for possible upcoming U.S. policy. While such comments are hardly based on any semblance of reality, it is worth noting that many Pakistanis are reacting very strongly toward this piece of fiction – at a time when perceptions of the U.S. are already at a frightening nadir.

Underachievers as Leaders? Singh and Obama

Two weeks after Time magazine ran a cover story on Manmohan Singh labeling him ‘the underachiever’, The Outlook, a weekly Indian magazine, has disclosed that it will be running a cover story on Barack Obama for its next issue using the same label to describe the American president.

Singh and Obama.

Time magazine criticised Singh for being “unable to control his ministers and – his new, temporary portfolio at the finance ministry notwithstanding – unwilling to stick his neck out on reforms that will continue the process of liberalisation he helped start.” Many others, such as Ratan Tata, have come quickly to the defense of Singh and argued that he should not be blamed for the country’s woes.

While some might applaud and take pride at the retort by The Outlook, there are others who are more disturbed by the sudden indignation shown by Indians about having an American magazine call their own prime minister an ‘underachiever’. Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka writes,

The noisy outburst over a Time magazine cover tagging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an “underachiever” is embarrassing proof that a large section of India’s ruling elite and media is still handcuffed to a slavish deference to western labels….Time’s covers were not exposés that pointed to any new facts about Indian public life, nor did they argue differently from dozens of domestic media outlets. So why did they trigger such seismic tremors of shame or triumph?

Others have written, “One could in fact argue that the ‘underachiever’ tag is much kinder than many other epithets like ‘complete failure’ that have been doing the rounds in Indian publications.”

While many continue to enjoy this retort, the Indian media may want to reflect on issues relevant to the Indian masses rather than responding with posts just to garner publicity. With the next general elections looming large, and many Indian voters disillusioned with the lack of credible candidates, a reflective debate might do more good than a tit-for-tat response.

Russia the Whipping Boy

Last week, I wrote about how Russian support for Syria has provided the Obama administration with expedient domestic and international cover for their preferred nonintervention policy. Russia expert Dimitri Simes concurred with that sentiment in a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

At a certain point, Russians may say to themselves that the game is all over in Syria, or at least almost over. They would not want to be the last ones to be committed to this man who is not viewed in Moscow as the same kind of villain he’s viewed as in Washington, but he’s not quite a hero either. At some point they may decide to give up on him and to start looking for bringing about regime change. They’re not quite there yet. Movement in that direction is driven by opposition successes on the ground, not by public pressure from the Obama administration. Also, Russians think the Obama administration is a little hypocritical, because as they have told Washington, [if] it is so committed to removing Assad, they certainly can do it the way it was done in Iraq, the way it was done during the liberation of Kosovo from Serbia, without Security Council blessing. The Russians are saying it would be a mistake, they would criticize it, but they would not resist it militarily, and it would not be a defining issue in the Russian-American relationship. Russian officials believe the Obama administration really does not want to intervene in Syria, but they’re using Russia as a whipping boy, to blame on Russia what the Obama administration does not quite want to do itself.

The part in bold is particularly revealing. It’ll be interesting to see if Russia, ostensibly aware of the political benefits reaped by the Obama administration, continues its current course of action.

(Thanks to Lionel Beehner for passing this along).

For more of his musings on international politics, follow William on Twitter.