Saturday, August 27, 2011



A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – August 2011

Most Indians’ first introduction to Britain is via the chapter on the freedom struggle in class 8 history. Some of us are fortunate to move on – to see Britain through the eyes of Goscinny and Uderzo in ‘Asterix in Britain’ and George Mikes in ‘How to be an Alien’, and to thereby gain an acquaintance with quirky British customs such as the conversations about the weather, the tea break, the love for one’s garden, the queue and the hot water bottle. My own introduction went a step or two further, via my 12 years in a British organisation, and let me state emphatically that I share with Asterix, Obelix and Mikes a wonderment at what I saw and learned in that time.

For example, the value of playing oneself down! In India, high status individuals make sure that they are recognizable by the presence of bowing and scraping minions, by visibly not observing rules and courtesies, and by conspicuous big talk. In the UK, they are not so easily discernable. The scruffy person standing next to you on the London tube could be a Nobel Prize winner, the rubenesque blonde you are trying to chat up at a bar could have a PhD in the classics, and the illegal-immigrant-looking fellow lining up behind you to watch the football game could be Real Madrid’s scout. It is best to reign in one’s initial assumptions. I, for one, remember visiting a pub in rural Scotland where I drank copious quantities of beer with someone looking like a daily wage labourer coming in straight after a day spent shovelling dung. It was only at about drink #5 that I got to know that he was the chief scientist in the “Dolly the cloned sheep” project. And I have many similar stories!

Or the appreciation of realistic reports! Some years into my job, I decided to unilaterally review the work done under my beat, and to do this with brutal honesty (as it was for my own information). The review report highlighted mistakes and bungles, and I did not come out smelling of roses. I sent this on to my boss in London fully expecting that he would trash it and cover up the failings, or else get rid of me. Instead, I was asked to present the findings to the board, then to write a paper for the industry magazine, and then to sit on a panel at an industry jamboree to discuss the realities of working in India. I learned that people there did not value rosy reports, and that I should always include what was not going well, and why, along with what was.

Or the general expectation of honesty and truthfulness! If an authority asks you who you are, you are not expected to corroborate your answer with some form of formal identification. If you put up a proposal for financial support, the claims made within are assumed to be factually correct. And if you submit a request for reimbursement of expenses, you don’t have to provide a hundred countersigned vouchers as proof. Quite unlike Indian systems, where the basic assumption is of dishonesty that has to be proven otherwise!

Or the issue of conflict of interest! We Indians would remember a minister who was found to have allotted a petrol pump under the ‘unemployed youth’ quota to his son, who upon query said, “So who’s son should I allot it to? Yours?” In Britain, he would have been joining the ranks of the unemployed very quickly.

The one quirk that I was particularly unable to apply to Indian conditions was that of ‘being fair’. Let me describe two instances where ‘fairness’ was called into question. We received too many proposals for financial support for our systems to handle, and were (therefore?) somewhat judgemental in disposing of them. And when we found dishonesty in our project partners we quickly and peremptorily closed the projects, without recourse to hearings, alternative viewpoints, and opportunities for the we-are-sorry-and-will-be-good-in-future syndrome to kick in. These were seen as ‘unfair’ by British standards (and therefore synonymous with high treason) even though the action taken was probably right. Similar handling of these issues in the Indian organisation that I simultaneously worked in was considered normal and unworthy of further explanation or justification. I was left feeling schizophrenic!

So, and here I come to the point of this paper, what is ‘being fair’? It is only now, as a ‘mature’ (ahem!) PhD candidate with an interest in policy issues relating to equity and justice, that I am able to read the philosopher John Rawls’ treatise on ‘justice as fairness’ . Fairness, to him, is about avoiding bias or the influence of vested interests, prejudices and personal priorities, and taking note of the concerns and interests of others . Here is a very brief synopsis of what he says about a ‘fair society’.

One, on the role of justice – it has to be the first virtue of all institutions of society. Laws and institutions, no matter how efficient and well arranged, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

Two, on basic individual liberties – each person has to have an equal right to an adequate set of basic liberties that is compatible with a similar set of liberties for all. These basic liberties should be inviolable, not subject to political bargaining or the calculus of social interests. ‘Justice as fairness’ denies that loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. An injustice is tolerable only if it is to avoid a greater injustice.

Three, to identify a set of ‘principles of justice’ for assigning the rights and duties in the institutions of society, and for determining the benefits and burdens of social cooperation, there need to be two rules. There has to be equality of opportunity to gain the skills and inclinations that make for merit and capability. And inequality is acceptable only if it brings the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls goes on to identify a hypothetical ‘original position’ wherein the principles of justice in a society are agreed upon using the above three basic positions. The original position has members of society sitting together without taking account their respective social places, classes and positions, or their fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, i.e. in a ‘veil of ignorance’. The fundamental agreements reached in this position, the principles of justice agreed to in this situation, can be considered ‘fair’.

Why is ‘justice as fairness’ important?

First, it moved the issue of justice out of the realm of economics and into that of political philosophy, where it provided a platform for subsequent thinkers such as Amartya Sen to develop their ideas. It provided an alternative to the then prevalent utilitarian beliefs that a society is just when its institutions are arranged to provide the most total satisfaction (summed for all individuals within), and that losses for some are compensated by greater gains for others.

Second, it brought the concept of ‘fairness’ into justice – that the violation of basic liberties of a few is not made right by the greater good shared by many. This would be well learnt in countries such as ours, where we suffer violations of all sorts in the name of security and economic growth (but actually for the greater benefit of our politician – bureaucrat – contractor nexus), so as to enable, inter alia, sensible policies on land acquisition, displacement of indigenous communities, and bestowing of mining and extractive rights.

Third, it provided a theoretical construct for developing ‘fair’ principles. The voluminous and occasionally legitimate, in my limited opinion, criticism that the concepts of ‘original position’ and ‘veil of ignorance’ have attracted do not take away from their importance as enabling constructs.

Finally, it provided a theoretical basis for the acceptance of inequality as being just – that a low-income household may be better off in a high income but unequal society than in a low income but egalitarian society. That we may not intuitively agree with this, again, does not take away from its importance.

To conclude, John Rawls has been like a ‘shaft of light’ (to quote Amartya Sen again, also on reading Rawls) on my dilemmas relating to equity, efficiency and justice. And yet, I hesitate to recommend his writings – they require time and/or greatly superior intelligence (and I have time). I also wonder what he would have made of the current British government’s expropriation of his ideas into the concept of a ‘Big Society’, and then using them to axe budgets and curtail basic services. Maybe he would have said, “It’s not fair!”


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Very well written, I must say.... primarily because I was not bored while reading it, i like the way Rawls flows.


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

As always, love reading what you have written...But even more than the writing itself, am full of admiration (& envy) at your ability to stay enthusiastic (doing a PhD at your age, Wow!!!!) and to find purpose in life....

Ashok Gopal

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Wonderful to read your note.

Nivedita Narain

Ajit Chaudhuri said...


This was a truly fascinating read ! I daren't say anymore, except that you do write well and should think of publishing this 2 pager for the benefit of the greater good !! (I hope I am not being unfair,hee hee).

Mekhela Deva

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

So true and lovely! Your writing always makes me think because they are often based on observations of your own life experiences and therefore appealing and pertinent. Thanks to you, I can also read about writers and concepts that are out of the realm of my everyday life. Your wonderful ability to make things lucid and logical contributes to my enlightenment!

Nandita De Souza

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Thanks Ajit to introduce me to Rawls. Seems like one should read him! Your two pager seems like a teaser Immensely teasing to the mind.

Take care
Sunil Kaul

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Wow, what a superlative review....Rawls and the reason he is the front of most discussion on the political economy of democracy! More power to you.

Dr. Amirullah Khan