November 11, 2015

Faculty Spotlight: Devesh Kapur

Devesh Kapur was appointed Director of Penn’s Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) in 2006. He is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Professor of Political Science at Penn and holds the Madan Lal Sobti Chair for the Study of Contemporary India. Prior to arriving at Penn, Kapur was Associate Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, and before that the Frederick Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard. His research focuses on India’s political economy, international migration and international financial institutions, and political and economic change in developing countries, especially India.

1. You earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering before getting a Ph.D. from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. How did you become interested in political science?

I didn’t have any exposure to the social sciences after high school because, in India, when you study engineering as an undergraduate you don’t study social sciences at all. And then I received my master’s in engineering in the United States—and, similarly, in graduate engineering programs you focus only on the science of engineering. So my interest in political science did not emerge from an interest in a particular academic discipline, it came from trying to understand how I grew up.

I grew up in the state of West Bengal, India, where my father had a factory. West Bengal went into economic decline from the mid- ‘60s onward, which was accompanied by industrial unrest, all of which affected my father and his firm. I was too young to really understand but, after my father died and I came to the United States, trying to understand what happened to my father and his business was on my mind. I wanted to understand the forces that shape the larger context in which people live and work. So my interest in political science and policy was a fairly inchoate interest originally—it was driven more by an emotional need to understand than by a cerebral and intellectual motivation. That came later of course, but it was not the initial impetus.

2. Your most recent book, Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs (co-authored with D. Shyam Babu and Chandra Bhan Prasad and published in 2014 by Random House India), recounts the business success of twenty-one members of the Dalit community, the so-called “untouchable” caste. What factors enabled these men (and one woman) to start and succeed in business?

To answer this question, I need to start with some background on the role of markets on social institutions. To understand how markets affect social institutions, consider as an example the study of deep-rooted social inequities in the United States. To understand these hierarchies, you might ask the question: What are the effects of markets and technological change on, say, race in the United States over the past century? Or on, say, gender relationships within the household? 

The study that resulted in this book took this approach in India. We considered India’s market liberalization, which began in the early-‘90s, asking how it affected a particular, very tenacious social institution in India: caste. We were particularly looking at the effects of the market on the lowest caste, the Dalits.

We undertook several surveys in rural India in which we asked members of the Dalit community how their lives had changed over the previous two decades and we discovered that their lives had changed considerably for the better. It’s not that life had become great, but it had moved from terrible to bad—which for us may seem bad, but for them was a massive improvement because it was relative to what they had, not to some hypothetical future. We discovered something hopeful: that market liberalization was providing space for entrepreneurship among members of the Dalit community.

We then worked with the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to identify and survey a thousand Dalit entrepreneurs. This book includes the stories of twenty-one of those thousand.

3. What role does India’s growing urbanization play in Dalit success? In what ways is urbanization shaping India’s social and political landscape?

This question has its roots in a debate that goes back to India’s independence and the drafting of its constitution. This was a debate between two giants of twentieth century India: Gandhi and Ambedkar. Mahatma Gandhi had a great deal of skepticism about modernity, felt that India’s heart and soul was in the intimacy of its villages, and that post-independence India should stress village life in improving the lives its people.

B.R. Ambedkar, the iconic leader of the Dalit (formerly “untouchables”) community was the head of the Constitutional Assembly and a key architect of the Indian Constitution. In sharp contrast to Gandhi, Ambedkar saw village life as fundamentally discriminatory. He famously called India’s villages a “cesspool, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism.”  He pointed out that Dalits in villages were very clearly identifiable. Something that Gandhi took as a positive—the intimacy of the village, where everyone knows everyone—Ambedkar saw as a terrible situation for Dalits: if everyone knows everyone, Dalits can never escape their ascriptive identity which had been forced on them by the upper castes. He saw the anonymity of urbanization as an escape route.

Gandhi and Ambedkar had two very different views of what India’s future should be and, consequently, what public policy should stress. Arguably, Gandhi’s position won out initially but, in the long term, Ambedkar’s vision is proving correct. India’s urbanization rate was unusually low relative to other urbanizing countries, especially immediately after independence—but it’s really begun accelerating now. Between 2014 and 2050, India’s urban population is expected to grow by about 400 million people—just under a million a month. About one-sixth of the global increase in urban population until 2050 is expected to be in India (China, with under one-eighth, is expected to be second). The society-wide transformations intrinsic to urbanization create opportunities and challenges for governments and citizens everywhere, but given the sheer scale of urbanization occurring in India, understanding its implications is vital to India’s future.

4. CASI is undertaking a multi-year survey on urbanization and social change in India. Can you tell us more about the study? What are you hoping to learn?

We are trying to understand the nature and intensity of social change brought on by burgeoning urbanization. We are beginning with the study of one large metro, the National capital Region of Delhi, which now has more than 28 million people (up from a few million in the early 1970s). We intend to expand the study geographically over time. After Delhi, we will survey Mumbai, then other large metros, starting with those with more than 4 million people, then those with 1 to 4 million, and so on.

We want to understand changes in urban political economy. We are trying to answer such questions as: Who do people go to when, say, basic services like water or sanitation are not working? Do they go to their local politicians? To the local bureaucracy? To a middleman? Or do they simply go to the private sector and buy the service?

We are also asking questions related to the Gandhi-Ambedkar debates about urbanization’s effects on social identities. Are rural migrants to cities bringing with them local identities from their villages? Are these identities getting reshaped? How? Are new identities emerging?  For instance, are there more inter-caste marriages in urban settings? Is there more inter-caste commensality (which is basically the idea of who you eat with)? 

5. CASI regularly hosts events and brings in distinguished scholars and politicians to speak at Penn. Are there any programs you are particularly looking forward to this coming year (2015-16)?

On September 29 we are going to have a public lecture by the Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), who is looking at urbanization and climate change. Then, in mid-November, we are hosting an invitation-only workshop on urbanization. In early February, we are bringing in Jairam Ramesh who was the Minister of the Environment in the previous government who will talking about India’s international stance and domestic policies on climate change. He’ll be on campus for about a week and will be interacting with various groups. Details about all of these events will be available on CASI’s website once they are finalized:


Media Contact:

Deborah Lang
Communications Director

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