Monday, March 17, 2008

Crab Antics in India

The NY Times has an interesting article on a man (an economist who's studied remittances by immigrants) who made it from a small village in India to the World Bank, and is returning to his home village (the native language has no script) for a visit. To quote:

Back in Sindhekela for the first time in three years, Mr. Ratha went from being a migration expert to mere migrant again, with the attendant tensions. He was annoyed that the money he sent his father for medical treatment went to a relative’s wedding. His father was annoyed that Mr. Ratha refused to honor his caste by wearing a sacred thread.

Father and son had long wrangled over the house that Mr. Ratha had built as a gift. The son is proud of the big master bedroom. His father finds its size off-putting and sleeps on a living room cot.

Mr. Ratha gave the village high school a new classroom, which he intended as a science hall. The state never sent the equipment, and the room houses some aging computers of uncertain utility.

Mr. Ratha, who named the building for his long-deceased mother, professes no donor’s remorse. “The building has served a great purpose,” he said.

He does worry that his generosity may have hurt his half-brother, Tarun, who spent the money on gadgets and a motorcycle and did not finish high school. At 23, he is unemployed and the family blames remittance dependency. “I think it has affected his drive in a negative way,” Mr. Ratha said.

At the same time, his sister Rina said that without his support she would not have earned her degrees or married an architect. “Whatever I am, I am because of him,” she said of Mr. Ratha.

The headmaster wanted another classroom. A neighbor needed medical care. Mr. Ratha needed no reminder that his 9-year-old’s tuition at a Washington private school, $26,000, would support 65 villagers for a year.

Still, he was surprised at the recent progress that Sindhekela had made. The road had been widened and partly paved. Three cellphone towers rose overhead, and the children all wore shoes. In a village once thick with beggars, he saw only one.

There were a variety of possible explanations, including an irrigation project that expanded local harvests. It was no surprise that Mr. Ratha emphasized another: India’s vast internal migration, which was luring villagers to distant cities and bringing rupees home.

You see the familiar discrepancy between what the locals want and what the rational outsider (i.e., bureaucrat) wants--as with the half-brother the locals often want immediate gratification.

The thing that struck me--the reactions to his remittances share features with those an anthropologist saw on a Caribbean island (wrote a book called "Crab Antics") and which have been reported in the inner city by Jason DeParle and others. That is, one's relatives, friends, and neighbors always have expectations of any success. It's like a tax and friends are more efficient collectors than the official tax collector. As such it may discourage initiative.

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