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Issue 6

Garden of Feedin’

Every night, around 12:30 AM, I’ve been getting a regular craving for something freud and cheesy. Oh, did I say freud? I meant fried. Silly. 

Well, I used to be a master of self-control a few months ago. I don’t care if you’re hungry, I’d say to myself. I don’t care if you’re hungry; pandemic or no pandemic, you are not gonna late-night-snack. That’s illegal. To be fair, many things were illegal on a personal level back then. I had my private Constitution and life was a law-abiding citizen. Eventually, of course, I snapped. Every day is the same day, and that day is Self-Love Saturday. No more denying myself pleasure! I had to improvise, adapt and overcome, and that began with the Forbidden Food. I chomped down on some grilled cheese sandwiches nightly, and added on a sugary bowl of cornflakes for good measure. Sometimes I’d go a little crazy and down ketchup by the bottle. Call me a rebel, I don’t care.

I was living the hedonistic dream, even with all the resulting acne.

The things I do in the name of self-care, I swear. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m in this body, because we both seem to have different ideas of The Good. It’s an ethical dilemma. How far can I take my pursuit of umami without crossing the limits of self-care? Is my Midnight Appetite an omen of the degeneracy that’s to come?

I ought to be concerned about the great decline my lifestyle is taking. Surely this is a turn for the worse, and I ought to fix it. And yet, I revel in it. 

A phase of any sort would be well-appreciated in these times. It reminds me that time passes: a thought that has otherwise been a sore point. At age 12, I decided that I was done growing. It was a conscious exercise of agency. However, time was uncooperative, as usual. It paid no heed to me and moved thoughtlessly onward, dragging me along with it. And conversely, it would trudge reluctantly the moment I’d have an uneventful bore of a day. Such lax behavior is what I’ve come to expect from this stupid dimension.

In light of this, it seems awfully odd that 2020, perhaps the most eventful year of my existence, is passing by so slowly. This year, a teenager from Florida masterminded a bitcoin scam and hacked Kanye West, Elon Musk and Bill Gates’ Twitter accounts. Kim Jong Un supposedly died and came back. Unexplained monoliths are sprouting up and disappearing around the world as we speak. If my past habits are anything to go by, I’m supposed to be binge-watching 2020. And yet, here I am, moping on the daily. Am I facing a genuine lack of stimulation even while living in a political-sci-fi-soap opera or am I just a lil brat? 

Perhaps it’s a bit of both. After all, I’m living a lifestyle that’s been meticulously organized into little unhealthy blocks. I spend all my time at home. I social-distance to the point where I can sense people’s auras from a mile away. I schedule designated balcony sunshine hours for myself. I’m really out here taking precautions like a beast. No wonder I’m not experiencing the craziness that is 2020. I’m too busy sanitizing my hands.

Last year I had an A1 cinnamon roll from a little hole-in-the-wall bakery in a town I’d never been to before. I suddenly remembered this spot of heaven during one particular balcony hour and felt a sudden urge to taste a good cinnamon roll. Where I live, this isn’t easily achievable. After a month or so of regularly remembering and putting the thought aside, I finally found a new bakery nearby that sells cinnamon rolls, and placed an order. Walking out of the lobby to the gate of my apartment complex, I was suddenly hit by this incredibly alien feeling. Oh my god. I’m outside. This feels so foreign. There was wind blowing in my hair and wide open space and glaring sunlight all around, for the first time in 6 months. I felt like the whole world could hear me think “Wow, the ground feels different.” I suddenly remembered my cinnamon rolls. Snapped back to reality. Gathered them and hastened back home.

Picture Credit: ISTOCK/YINYANG

Deepti Jayakrishnan is a student of Philosophy and Computer Science at Ashoka University. She likes windy days and judging books by their covers.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

Back to the Future: “Seamlessly” transitioning to a ‘Post-Covid World’

“It’s just a small gathering.”

News outlets globally reported a significant spike in Covid-19 cases in November 2020, owing to a festive season coinciding with lower temperatures and greater pollution levels. Following Diwali celebrations, daily Covid cases rose by nearly 50% in India, while the United States witnessed higher daily mortality post Thanksgiving, than in the beginning of the pandemic. Even as people rush to justify those one-two-three outings with a single sentence, we all wonder how long we will be forced to live like this. After months of speculation and great uncertainty, the concluding weeks of November brought good tidings, with two major pharma companies announcing the success of their vaccine trials. At once, the thick fog hanging over the “future” seemed to lift a little. With the UK being the first nation to approve imminent mass vaccination, a “post-Covid world” may soon become a reality.

So what is this ‘post-Covid world?’ 

In thinking about a ‘post-Covid world,’ we are participating in an act of imagination. That many of us have already begun actualising these imaginations, despite the very real threat of infection, leaves us with a crucial question: is a ‘post-covid world’ one where we live alongside the disease, or one where it is eradicated? Many reports suggest that the coronavirus is here to stay. If indeed, this turns out to be true, what might a transition – a seamless transition – into such a world look like?

Here, the word “seamless” is of consequence. What exactly is “seamless?” And for whom is such a transition “seamless?” One of the newest buzzwords, buzzphrases this year was “Work from Home.” White-collar employees readily embraced working from the comfort of their living rooms and balconies while wearing formal shirts with shorts underneath. Sometimes, a mischievous child or a rowdy pet made an appearance to break the monotony of Zoom meetings. Most encouragingly, persons with disabilities, who had previously been excluded from employment, were now assimilated into the workforce, owing to the many accommodations and adjustments companies introduced in order to ease working from home. 

But working from home was also not a universal reality. If the lockdown was an extended vacation for those sitting comfortably at the upper crust of society, it was also a period of extreme struggle – confronting the virus on a daily basis was a matter of putting food on the table for thousands. Delivery persons continued to visit houses, probably even more than usual. Doctors, nurses, and healthcare systems faced unimaginable amounts of pressure. Government support for these services in several countries was negligible, if any existed at all. 

Globally, the long months of the pandemic have also been accented by some of the largest protests tackling racism, abortion rights, and agricultural inequalities, all while unemployment and sickness rates were skyrocketing. The pandemic also brought to light numerous social fractures that were previously invisible, or cleverly concealed. Namely, identity-based discrimination was accentuated by the biased identification of specific social vectors of transmission; Muslims and the poor in India, immigrants in the USA, and East Asians globally all became ‘Covid bodies’. As an “ideology of transmission,” this is deeply controversial. Alongside this, increased domestic violence, stark social disparities in the access to education and technology, and the inherent violence of working in a system that is obsessed with productivity under any condition became immediately apparent.

‘Liminality,’ in anthropology, is defined as a transition between two relatively stable conditions, and is characterized by ambiguity and disorientation. One is tempted to think of these lockdowns as liminal, then, for with the vaccine on the horizon, surely we’re at the end of this period of uncertainty. It provides a convenient vacuum within which to locate the many social fractures that came to light, and allows us to think – rather naively, perhaps – that along with the disease, these undesirable “social symptoms” of increased classism and racism, too, will be eradicated. While jobs for healthcare professionals and delivery persons became even riskier during the pandemic, one is also compelled to think about whether accommodations in other forms of employment will be retained in a “post-covid” situation.

In fact, this ‘post-covid world’ that we are now venturing into bears eerie resemblance to the world before the coronavirus made an appearance. In other words, could we possibly be returning to an “old” normal, rather than a new one? It is clear that a transition into a “post-covid” world has already begun. However, it is also irrefutable that it is not “seamless,” and can never be. Even as we have these realisations about the eroded state of our social fabric, we are left with few answers on the nature and possibility of change. Where does this knowledge leave us? In the face of economic recession, messy politics, heightened surveillance, and deteriorating ecologies, a return to an innocent-sounding “normalcy” is probably the most harmful way forward. Perhaps now is the time to return to the drawing board instead, to investigate the live wires, loose screws, and rusted cogs in our systems that reduce us to categories and the statistics that mete out and endure violence. 
Looking back at the past, different pandemics have been remembered differently. While the black death was forever etched into the world’s collective memory, the Spanish Flu of 1918 is termed the ‘forgotten pandemic’. It was eclipsed by a backdrop of massive global political shifts, despite it infecting a third of the world’s population. Who is allowed to forget a pandemic, really? More importantly, when are we allowed to do so? In the same way that nations’ adaptation to a world with the coronavirus was deeply varied, and the transition to a “post-Covid world” appears far from seamless, the ending of the pandemic too, will certainly be staggered. Many feverishly hope that the end of 2020 brings with it the final days of the pandemic. Given the speed at which we are ploughing ahead, foregrounded by the socio-political unrest, ecological damage, and economic crises, will Covid-19 too, become a “forgotten pandemic?”

Picture Credit: Shutterstock

The writers, Reeva Dani, Tanvi Gupta, Teesta Rawal, Trisha Nagpal, and Vinay Chandnani, are students of the sociology course ‘The Plague Town: Politics of Pandemic’ at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

Technology will change, but what about ethics?

In a physically distanced world, through the power of technology the American media mogul Oprah Winfrey pulled-off a successful “in-person” interview with Barack Obama, a former President of the USA. Although Oprah was in Santa Barbara, California and Obama in Washington, D.C., the green screen technology used for the interview made it appear as though the pair were comfortably sitting across each other, by Oprah’s fireplace in her Montecito mansion. 

After the interview aired on Oprah’s Apple TV show, The Oprah Conversation, most people were stunned by what the technology used was able to do. The interview took place seamlessly and the two appeared to be in the same room throughout. The film industry, especially the Marvel franchise, extensively makes use of green screen technology. Technology like this has existed in the fictional space for a while now. But should the use of such technology enter the media space? 

We live in a world where misinformation is consistently proliferating. False representations tend to dominate the media landscape because they are being generated at a much faster pace compared to our ability to detect them. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) continue to blur our perceptive abilities. We have reached a stage where we find it difficult to distinguish between real and fake digital representations. Thus, among the existing sea of misinformation, do we want technology, like the one Oprah used, to be pursued for journalistic endeavours?  

Deepfakes (created through the use of AI, are audio and video representations of people saying and doing things that didn’t actually) first surfaced on the internet in 2017. For the first time, it gave creators the power to lip-sync audio or make other digital manipulations in a highly realistic way. The famous Obama deepfake is an example of how realistic they can get. Once the technology became cheaper and its application easier, deepfakes quickly started exploding on the internet. While the entertainment value of such technology is high, there is an uncomfortable amount of rising malicious content. 

The technology has acquired political value and is often used as a tool to amplify propaganda. Misrepresentations of political leaders and other public figures are frequently distributed to the masses. Possessing the power to undermine the credibility of journalism, manipulate elections and reduce trust in institutions, the use of this technology has been mainly sinister. According to a study, 96% of deepfakes on the internet are pornographic, with most being non-consensual. Apart from damaging the reputation of individuals, the deepfake AI has also raised broader ethical implications. Most technologies have positive as well as negative outcomes, but the discourse on deepfake technology has been more critical than appreciative.  

While it is essential to use technology ethically, maybe we need to take a step back, and ask: Is it morally right or wrong to use it in the first place? Even though Oprah publicly acknowledged the technology she was using, was mere disclosure enough? There is no doubt that technology holds power. Many of the ethical dilemmas we face today are an outcome of technology. Thus, when trying to deliberate upon whether or not it is okay to deploy certain technology in the space of journalism, thinking through ethical implications becomes important. 

Different ethical principles result in differing approaches to such issues. Let us assume that Oprah is still in the process of deciding whether it is ethical to use the green screen technology for her interview. For Consequentialist Oprah, the decision of using the technology would be governed by the outcomes of using it. She would have to deliberate whether the benefits of using the technology would overweigh the costs. Kantian Oprah would follow a deontological approach. Rather than looking at the consequences of her choice, her decision-making process would be based on the idea of performing moral duties grounded with rationality. Virtue ethicist Oprah’s decision would rely on deciding whether her act itself is virtuous. This decision would neither be based on duty nor based on the consequences of the outcome. 

When approaching whether or not to use technology, it is important to look at things through these different ethical lenses and perspectives because they provide insight into the types of moral conundrums that a situation may cause. While the guidance from these theories often conflicts with the other, it lays down different choices and options. The decision-making process used to arrive at a conclusion, thus, gets governed by a moral fabric. 

Digital technologies have spawned new opportunities as well as challenges with the way we communicate today. A global shift to digital media has changed the way information is being disseminated. Through the internet, every individual has the ability to discharge information to the masses. In an idealistic world, we would expect all individuals to practice basic ethical standards. Since the world we live in is far from ideal, it is especially important for media professionals to be careful about the form and application of technology they are deploying as it sets a precedent for others to follow. But even if journalistic codes are practised, some questions remain. Since technology keeps changing, which principles should be incorporated while making decisions? In case of ethical pitfalls, how can accountability be held? Should we be guided by a regulatory framework? Who should make these decisions?

Picture Credit: Elena Lacey; Getty Images

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

India and the World: Looking into 2021

“I firmly believe that 2020 will be known, not as a year of external disruption, but as a year of internal discovery, for our society and for our nation,” 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote these words for an exclusive article in the Manorama Yearbook 2021. While his words were meant to bring hope for India in times of crisis it also raised questions of how the pandemic altered the country’s position in the international community. 

Claims that India will be a superpower by 2020 have been thrown around by academics, economists and patriotic bhakts for over two decades. These claims can be traced back to India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium by APJ Abdul Kalam. In this book Kalam laid down his prediction of an India that would have eliminated poverty, have a high amount of women in the work force and would be an economic giant by the year 2020. These predictions could now be considered optimistic at best and completely delusional at worst. 

Coming into 2020 it was quite apparent that we hadn’t even touched the surface of becoming a poverty free nation. The World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report in January 2020 claiming that it will take seven generations for Indians born in low income families to even approach the country’s mean income. The 2020 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) identified 27.9% of the population as multidimensionally poor,  the number was 36.8% for rural and 9.2% for urban India. Even promises about the increasing involvement of women in the workforce has proved to be quite inaccurate. India’s female labour force participation rate fell to a historic low in 2018.  India is currently the most disadvantaged country for women participation in South Asia. Economic predictions about India becoming a super power also seem like a big joke. Coming into 2020 the country’s 5% inflation-adjusted growth was the lowest since 2013 and the 7.5% nominal rate was the lowest since 1978. The country that once had one of the fastest growing economies, has not seen success over the last few years mainly due to several blunders in national economic policies and actions. 

While the above numbers may just seem like confusing statistics they shed light on a much larger issue the Indian economy needs to counter. Low participation of women in the workforce doesn’t just shed light on the gender disparity that is evidently prevalent in the Indian patriarchal structure, but also showcases wastage of a large chunk of the country’s working population. 

A high poverty rate in the country’s population is a clear result of poor fiscal management on part of the government. The fact that a majority of the country’s workforce is employed in a sector that contributes the least to its GDP should be a clear indication that the Indian economy is in desperate need of a transformation. The record low inflation rates shows that the country is displaying minimal growth. All of these indicators point to one answer – India is nowhere close to being a developed nation.

India stepped into 2020 with an economic slowdown characterised by high poverty rates and increasing unemployment. The country was in turmoil as mass protests broke out in all states surrounding the people’s outrage towards the government’s discriminatory citizenship laws (NRC/CAA). This year was also not free of obstacles for the country, the biggest obstacle obviously being the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian economy that was already suffering before the year started has taken massive hits, as the country has now officially entered a technical recession. The country is now faced with farmer protests due to the government’s new Farm Bills that potentially threaten the stability of their income. So what does all this mean for India’s position in the world?

The Indian economy took a larger hit than any other major economy. In the April-June quarter, the country’s GDP shrank by 23.9% , the worst contraction in its history. India also entered a technical recession for the first time since 1947. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculations showed that the Indian economy had taken a “uniquely” larger hit than most other countries. While their 2020 growth projections showed upward trends for countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, India’s GDP dip due to the pandemic was more than double the global average fall. Infact China’s trade surplus widened to a record, gaining a 21% increase (for the month of November) in exports from a year earlier. 

The Modi government has tried to ensure the public that this fall in the GDP is temporary and promised that the economy will rebound rapidly, calling it a “V shaped recovery”.  In reality though this is quite unlikely. Sabyasachi Kar’s model predicts that it will take up to 2033 for India to get back on the pre-Covid growth path if the country’s GDP grows at a rate of 7% for the next 13 years. Another projection made by scroll.in shows that if India’s GDP grows at a realistic 6.1% instead of Kar’s 7% estimate, it will take almost three decades (upto 2049) for the country’s GDP to get back on a growth path. While the Indian government is planning on introducing policies to ensure growth, the country’s standard growth policies are being ineffective. States across the country are seeing a reduction in their capital expenditures (CAPEX) , this is mostly due to the fall in revenue due to the pandemic. This reduction in revenue and CAPEX basically means that the government isn’t investing close to enough money on roads, energy plants and other necessary infrastructure. An increased investment in infrastructure is peremptory if the country is to get back on its feet, and the current spending capacity of the states is only going to make post covid recovery much harder. 

Nirmala Sitharaman had stated that the COVID-19 pandemic was an “Act of God” which may result in a contraction in India’s growth. But India’s position as a potential superpower has been threatened for the last 6 years, and the pandemic has only acted as a catalyst for an economy that was already crumbling. While we can try to stay optimistic and hope that the government’s plans pay off, it’s almost impossible that the country can get back to the growth it enjoyed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

Picture Credit: “India Map 2 N” by Mark Morgan Trinidad A is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

Politics of Viewership : What can Patriotic Films Tell Us?

While some films and shows have explicit propaganda and political alignments that they aim to put forward, there is content that handles the ideological waves shifting around us in much more subtle ways. With the global far right and Populist Waves gaining momentum, as observed in the administrations all around the world (recently disrupted by the fall of Trump’s administration in the US), is there a shift in storytelling on screen and how viewers converse with the content they are consuming? 

In the Indian context, we’ve had films like Uri (2019) being highly celebrated for portraying the valor of the soldiers for the surgical strikes in our neighboring country of Pakistan. The general conversations that the film provokes are not completely new, Pakistan has been in the cinematic realm since the 1947 Partition and has been villainized more so post the Bangladesh war in 1975 and Kargil war in 1999 – like in Border (1997) which is based on the Bangladesh Liberation  War of 1971. Films like this bank on the invocation of patriotism from the viewers, India wins at the end and the audience is rooting for the Indian soldiers to survive the war. But Border was released 26 years after the war that it was based on; by virtue of the distance of time it ended up making an appeal against war and the trauma it causes to soldiers and their families on both sides. Thus, the shift from Border to Uri lies in the fact that the latter’s audience was prompted to make a connection between the success of the mission and the upcoming elections, and the eventual re-formation of the BJP led government. 

Also, in light of the 2019 general elections – The Accidental Prime Minister (January 2019) and PM Narendra Modi (May 2019) are important to note. The former looks at India’s former PM Manmohan Singh and his term and the latter at the rise of Modi; the timing and the titles are enough to indicate the propagandist nature of the releases. 

The above-mentioned films were a little too on the nose about their affiliations and ideological leanings. But let’s look at other Indian films and how the patterns of invoking patriotism seem to be shifting. 

In the early days of our country’s independence movement, filmmakers were making films that would be against the empire, songs and stories based on the concept of swaraj. Nationalist agendas and patriotism were achieved in these through rebellion and attacking the ones with power. The British administration would fight back by trying to censor any inflammatory songs or messages, although language was an obstacle they had to get by first. Post-independence, films critiqued the conditions of the 1947 partition and the violence that had happened, and would continue to point out the corruption, unemployment and other vices that the government needs to deal with, while also celebrating the newly formed democracy. 

More recently, the quantity of sports biographical films, based on real life incidents and successes where Team India won and made its citizens proud has increased. Chak De India (2007) was a fictional narrative about the Indian women  hockey team winning the World Cup. But in the next decade, prompted by the success of Bhaag Mikha Bhaag in 2013, we had lieu of real-life sports victories – Dangal (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and Mary Kom (2014). Though Chak De India had an additional victory in the acceptance of Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim coach – the patriotism had widened from being just a sports win to a reinstatement of India’s status as a multi-cultural, secular country. 

Fictionalized true life events make it easier for connections to be made between real and reel life politics, like with Uri. The conflation may or may not be co-incidental, the inspirational incidents may be old and the films new – but the rise in the top-grossing films that invoke patriotism only through real life wins indicates that the space for losses, for the state’s vulnerabilities being explored and exposed, has reduced. Dangal does mention the ill conditions of the country’s sports facilities, but such critiques are too far and too few. 

The biographical patriotic films aren’t limited thematically to just sports. Films like Mission Mangal (2019) celebrate the success of India’s space triumphs. And Pad Man (2018) pats the country’s back in terms of social awareness movements. Also, Parmanu:The Story of Pokhran (2018), based on the Indian army’s nuclear test bomb explosions in 1998. These are a stark contrast from films being made in the previous decade – films like Rang De Basanti (2006) and A Wednesday (2008) or even Nayak (2001) which implore patriotism through protest and rebellion. 

The branding of what it means to be patriotic has itself shifted for Indian cinema. 

The influence of populist waves, films seem to be choosing safer narratives, to only talk about the successes of India instead of critiquing the state and invoking the administration as an accountable figure in the context of nation making. The shift can also possibly be marked down to the lack of funding support or production feasibility of rebellious films and stories. Considering the losses that film productions can bear when they run into trouble with certain right-wing Nationalist groups (self-appointed protectors of the administration that is being critiqued) maybe playing it safe is the future for cinema.

Jaskiran is an English and Media Studies graduate from Ashoka University. She is now working on her capstone project on representations of terrorism and nationalism in cinema as a student of Ashoka’s Scholars Programme.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

India’s Dominant Family Businesses Need Newer Challengers

The great Indian business family is dead. Long live the next great Indian business family. Like taxes and death, this key pillar of life in this country is ubiquitous. But like much of society around it, there are clear signs it is atomizing. No longer is the son of the rice merchant destined to continue the family tradition. He, and in some rare cases she, is experimenting with newer opportunities being constantly thrown up by a rapidly changing economy. 

That though doesn’t mean the end of the business family’s  dominant role in the Indian environment. Family Business Network, the Lausanne-based federation of business families, estimates their contribution to India’s gross domestic product at a whopping 70%. 

Not that there’s anything particularly aberrant about this. According to consulting firm Ernst and Young, 85% of companies in the Asia-Pacific are family-owned. Similarly, family businesses make up more than 60% of all European companies ranging from sole proprietors to large international enterprises. What’s more these businesses create value for themselves but also for the broader markets. Across the world, including in India, returns generated by family-owned businesses have been consistently higher than those by non-family owned ones.

For this they have been amply rewarded. According to the Billionaires Insights Report 2020 published by UBS and PwC the net worth of India’s billionaires has surged 90% in the 11 years since 2009.

It mirrors a worldwide trend of big businesses getting bigger. Thus, the Wall Street Journal recently advertised for the position of Reporter, Google. It isn’t uncommon for media outlets to assign reporters to cover specific sectors or countries but doing that for selected companies is rare. But so dominant are some global companies and so pervasive their influence that it may be blasphemous but not entirely untrue to say that Google matters more than many countries. As WSJ goes on to say in its job description: “Google’s impact on business and society is vast. Beyond its core search-and-advertising business, it is one of the world’s biggest video distributors through YouTube, the largest smartphone-software supplier thanks to Android, a leader in developing self-driving-car technology through Waymo, and a top contender in the booming cloud-computing industry.”

As it is with Google today, so it has been with others like McDonald’s, WalMart and General Motors in the past. Size leading to market dominance has ensured that some businesses have a disproportionately large influence on the world. It has led to the constant tussle between big business and regulators keen to ensure they don’t squeeze smaller competitors out of the market.

That’s where the biggest danger of business family dominance in India lies. The first two decades following the liberalization of the economy threw up new names in the business landscape of the country. Entrepreneurs like Sunil Mittal in telecom, Uday Kotak in banking, Naresh Goyal and later Rahul Bhatia and Rakesh Gangwal in aviation, rushed to take advantage of the opening up to the private sector of areas that had hitherto been reserved for state-run monopolies. Some like Naresh Goyal came to grief. Others soldiered on and have become the business families of today. At Wipro, the software-to-consumer products conglomerate that was set up by Hasham Premji in 1945, the third generation of Premjis, in the form of new chairman Rishad Premji, is now in charge.

It is the way economies with relatively free markets grow. In fact, crystal ball gazing in the late 1990s led several analysts to predict that in the future Indian business would be driven by companies like Ranbaxy, Samtel, Infosys, ILFS, Kotak Mahindra and Yes Bank, as much as it would by existing powerhouses like Reliance and Tata. 

The future is here and sadly most names in that list of future stars have dropped off with only Kotak and Bharti holding fort. In fact, over the last few years, a disturbing trend has  emerged with a handful of powerful families mopping up businesses across sectors. Despite a surge in entrepreneurship generously funded by private equity and venture capital, there aren’t too many start-ups that look like challenging the incumbents whether it is in existing business areas or even brand new ones like e-commerce, green energy, telecom or retail.  

Worse still, if some recent changes proposed by the country’s central bank are implemented, that dominance may grow to dangerous levels. With capital being the first need of any new venture, RBI’s proposal to allow business groups to set up banks may just add more heft to their existing clout. In a linkedin post two former deputy governors of the RBI, Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel warned that allowing corporate entry into banking “will further exacerbate the concentration of economic (and political) power in certain business houses.”  

The tragedy is that going forward the Indian business world could end up looking more like that of the pre 1990s era when a handful of names reigned supreme. Groups like Aditya Birla, Ambani, Mahindra and Mahindra, Vedanta, Bajaj, Jindal, Munjal, RPG, Hinduja, Murugappa, Lalbhai and Adani are a throwback to our past. In the 21st century, they need to be challenged by newer groups. That’s not going to happen if regulation, and regulators, continue to throw their lot with the incumbents. 

Picture Credit: “India Map on Indian Map” by Kush Patel is marked with CC0 1.0

Sundeep Khanna is a columnist, business writer and executive editor at the Mint.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

Indie Films You Probably Missed and Must Watch

Even without theatres, 2020 had a constant flow of movies to watch. In the hustle to keep up with the dominant Twitter conversations, we spent the year watching some of the most talked about movies out there, like Tenet, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and that Taylor Swift documentary. Inevitably, some of the smaller releases slipped through the cracks. Here are five indie films released in 2020, three of which I’ve seen and highly recommend, while the other two I am myself eager to check out.

5. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

“There are a lot of ugly things about our history, but I think we have to know them.” This quote from the documentary Disclosure sums up the driving philosophy behind the film. Made by trans filmmakers, it presents the history of Hollywood from the eyes of trans audiences and actors, and asks its viewers to reckon with the good as well as all of the bad. I can’t speak about whether it makes for a necessary or a good watch for a trans person, but if you’re cisgendered, I can assure you that you need to hear what this film has to say.

4. The Forty-Year-Old Version

This music biopic doubles as an underdog story, telling the inspiring story of Radha Blank, an almost 40-year-old Black playwright who decides to make a rap mixtape. With a beating heart and sharp wit, the black-and-white drama keeps a fast pace without skimping on quieter character moments. Blank, who writes, directs, and stars, pokes fun at the kind of poverty porn that white people think counts as progressive, while an undercurrent of anger makes sure we never feel like she’s making light of the issue.

3. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson isn’t actually dead. Yet. As far as I know. But he’s getting close, and his daughter, documentarian Kirsten Johnson, made this movie to try to process that fact. This morbidly funny film is made up of scenes where the father-daughter duo enact various ways he could die, as well as a fake funeral ceremony. But much of the heart of the film comes from the scenes where they’re just talking, discussing the making of this film or remembering Kirsten Johnson’s late mother. Keep tissues handy.

2. First Cow

What would an indie film list be without an A24 release? First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt, sounds no less unique than we expect from the studio, and I’m kicking myself for not having watched it yet. Critics have started compiling their best-of-2020 lists (yes, before watching the December releases, it’s weird), and First Cow seems to be dominating. Like with any A24 film, I suggest watching this one knowing as little as possible going in.

1.Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Another movie gracing a lot of year-end lists, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania. One of them faces an unintended pregnancy, and the two set off to get her to an abortion clinic, something for which they cannot expect local support. By all accounts, the film appears to be a quietly devastating drama. And the fact that the director has said that she was inspired not only by a true story, but by the flaws she noticed in earlier abortion dramas, only serves to pique my interest even more.

Utkarsh is a student of Philosophy and Creative Writing and a writer-editor for the in-house film journal of Navrang, the film society of Ashoka University. Tanvi is a student of English at Ashoka University and is head editor for the Navrang Journal

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