Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Reproduced from ET

Mobility has an aspirational swing in India : Partha Sinha

AT THE early stage of my working career I used to work with a foreign bank that had a very pronounced recruitment hierarchy. Fresh MBAs were clearly divided between a brahminical and non-brahminical order based on which management institutes they came from. But the most fascinating aspect of that caste system was that these two categories were popularly known inside the bank as the 'mobile' and the 'non-mobile' category. Needless to say the mobile people were from the brahminical institutes. Mobility in India had traditionally been bestowed with a coveted status and was intrinsically linked to material well-being. Contrary to popular belief that Indians are a 'rooted' lot; higher esteem has always been accorded to mobility. From the recurring Bollywood theme of the village boy moving to big town and changing his life almost as a rule, to the entire phenomenon called 'brain-drain' or the obsessions of certain communities to migrate to the UK or Canada the potent power of mobility can be witnessed in many aspects of the Indian life. If we try to understand the codes of mobility in more details, we will find that it's intrinsically linked to the social structure of India. Our society is marked by a linear hierarchy and that invariably produces a desire to move up the hierarchy ladder. This desire is the driving force of mobility. In India, there's nothing called spatial mobility our mobility is fundamentally social mobility. Nobody wants to move from North Delhi to South Delhi for geographical reasons. The dream movement of most starry-eyed management trainees from Malad to Malabar Hill in Mumbai is not rooted in travelling conven ience. One may argue that geographies have represented social strata in almost all societies across the globe, but in India the act of mobility itself ends up determining social order. One of the primary examples of the triumph of social mobility over physical mobility is the way cars are seen in India. Cars are definitely not a mode of travelling between two points. In most cases, in urban India, walking will possibly be a faster and better method to reach a destination than a car. Cars in India represent social destinations. Even if it is difficult to drive a larger vehicle in the congested roads of Mumbai, Bangalore or Delhi everyone invariably wants a bigger car. It's almost a sacrilege for the junior to have a bigger car than his boss. Even if car marketers try to segment the market accord ing to different need types it invariably falls into this social laddering. 4X4 off-roaders and sedans may appeal to different needs and mindsets, according to car marketing convention, but here they are compared and clubbed to form different strata of social destinations. Another interesting phenomenon around mobility is the ever-growing popularity of mobile phones and it's impact on the society. Like most modern societies, Indians are also forced to lead lives characterised by discrepancies between spatial and social distances. On one hand they have to tolerate spatial proximity with people very distant from them thanks to living in crowded cities, moving in crowded areas or using public transport. On the other hand, they have to accept spatial distance from the people who they feel close to. The significance of mobile phone lies in empowering them to engage in communication that frees them from the constraint of physical proximity and spatial mobility at the same time. When an anglicised executive starts using a mobile phone to connect with his buddies while waiting at a doctor's chamber, he is not only moving closer to the people he relates to, but most importantly moving away from the 'non-corporate types' who are waiting along with him in the same chamber. Mobile phones in India have helped create social proximity and distances. Another glaring example of that is the way mobile phones are being embraced by a class that has never heard a dial tone before. The mobile phone is giving them the freedom to get included. A plumber today doesn't need to give the address of his hutment. He uses his mobile number as his address. This allows him to transcend the psychological barriers that would have come with his address. Mobility itself allows the plumber to deny social exclusion. A stable dwelling place was the pre-requisite for creating social organizations. And that's why people had an emotional attachment to their 'own' house. It created the anchor point that started defining who they are. But in the life of the urban nomads today, this stability comes from social standings rather than the stability of the dwelling places. They buy a house today with the definitive plan to move out of it in a few years. The center of social organisation today is a moving point and thus mobility is a coveted virtue. But is this mobility akin to running fast to stay at the same place? Maybe true, may be not but one thing is true for sure: The nation is on the move.