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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
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Making Time: Diwali in Borivali

Sat, 11/11/2017 - 03:02

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrating the triumph of good over evil, might be considered a less than fortuitous date to pilot a survey instrument for business owners in Mumbai. The crowds doing last minute shopping to puja-fy their homes, the local student body from which I pluck research assistants gone home, as have business owners with employees to run the shop in their absence – all can plunder this trial, but the Indian calendar leaving little space between Hindu, Muslim, or Christian festivals and historical figures’ birthdays, this week is as a good as any.

So it is that on Choti Diwali, or little Diwali, what feels like Christmas Eve, my research assistant, a real life Velma Dinkley, picks up the puddle I am on a train platform under the 32 degrees of midday, and guides me through the overground maze onto the ladies’ compartment of a train headed to Borivali, a northwestern suburb of Mumbai. The compartment’s contents of embroidered and printed layers of crepe, silk, and cotton look especially vibrant, for which Velma, always quick to provide context to my wonderment, explains the tradition of purchasing and wearing new clothes on Diwali. As the only ladies in drab shirts and slacks, we stand out among the rainbow flash of the urban landscape, but all the more to blend into the paan and watch repair stalls on our list of visits.

On our way to our first business owner, Velma catches a whiff of nostalgia and we find ourselves stopping by street vendors to do our own last minute Diwali shopping. Velma picks at the baskets of sparkles and brightly colored powders to make rangolis on the doorstep, while reminiscing about “bursting crackers” as a child that turned into flaming smokey snakes. Despite their roller derby champion names like Ruby Whip and Sparkling Thunder, their light to noise ratio is apparently quite low and results in a neighborhood-sweeping Armageddon, softened only by the yellow and orange marigolds crowning doorways and awnings.

Diwali seems to be as good a reason to welcome us in as to shoo us out, independent of customer flow or progress made in today’s newspaper. Our best reception comes from a man sipping chai at the empty counter of his 2 by 2-meter store, carefully looking through us as we near his perimeter of interaction, before putting up an index in the air, and slowly saying “No time,” chai sipping and people watching uninterrupted. Others like the man selling knock off track suits a couple stalls down calls us in to ask what we are snooping for, promptly inviting us in for chai delivered spill-proof in ziplocs. The “heureux elus”, or lucky winners as my grandmother calls my survey respondents, who sit through the ten to forty minutes of questioning depending on our need for clarification and their need for an ear, are compensated with Velma’s homemade coconut laddoos.

My linguistic capacities in Hindi and Marathi being nil, Velma is free to direct the conversation and discuss Bihar’s Dowry Free India Movement, or the gender distribution of cattle on a Rajasthani farm, while I decipher interactions in the rambunctious silent film playing out before my eyes. Standing in the entrance of a frame repair workshop owned by an old man with an even older assistant, I watch as a corpulent lady appears, flower garlands in a bag, on the hunt for puja elements. She asks for images of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth honored on the night of Diwali so that she pays a visit to worshippers’ homes. The hunched assistant proceeds to fan out Lakshmis sitting in her lotus flower. The images having a landscape orientation however, the goddess bores a more portly stature than in the client’s imagination. Tapping the goddess’s stomach, the woman asks for portraits, after which the assistant produces a stack of images and flips through Hanuman, Ganesh, Lord Ram, Sai Baba, and the multitude of Hindu deities and gurus I have yet to catalogue. Lean Lakshmi is not of the party.

The sun setting on the noble citizenry of the pedestrian alley, the lady settles on landscape Lakshmi and saunters off with her marigolds and newspaper-wrapped frame under the arm. A “Happy Diwali” and a gifted image usher us out. On the way back to the train station, we stop again by sidewalk vendors seemingly birthed by the retail shops behind them over the course of the day, and I get my first taste of charred water chestnuts – a humble delight. Small earthen pots flickering with ghee light our way to the neon vada pav joint marking the entrance to the station and dishing out its slider-sized concoction of yellow bread and fried potato stuffing to commuters. I ask Velma about her Diwali plans. She tells me traditionally people stay home to drink and gamble with their friends. There is another tradition though, which her family opts for, entailing a full spring cleaning to welcome the new year before the relatives arrive. “So you’re celebrating New Year ?” I ask. “Well, one of them. This is my third in 2017.” Diwali, as good a time as any to amble the streets of Borivali.


Financing MSMEs in India: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Tue, 11/07/2017 - 05:45

As mainstream household microfinance has matured in India over the past thirty years, focus has turned to the country’s underserved Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). The MSME sector is a pinnacle of the Indian economy, made up of 48.8 million units that contribute 11% of India’s GDP (IFC, 2010). With India’s young working-age population to peak by 2020, the government has taken measures to give impetus to MSMEs’ potential to scale and generate further job creation.

MSMEs operate in an environment that makes it difficult for them to formalize and scale however. Challenges that have chronically constrained the growth of the sector include poor infrastructure and insufficient market linkages, but the most cited challenge to growth is a lack of adequate and timely access to finance. As microfinance prioritized the financial inclusion of households over that of enterprises, credit has become more accessible to self-help groups than to entrepreneurs with a larger need for it (Joshi, 2017). Financial inclusion advocates have adopted the term “missing middle” to categorize MSMEs that fall into a debt gap, being too small to access bank loans, yet too large for microfinance loans (CGAP, 2015). According to an IFC estimate, the sector suffers from a debt gap of over INR 2.9 trillion ($ billion), which, despite the advances made in the last decade to expand financial services to MSMEs, cannot bridged by the current composite of government schemes, financial institutions, and individual enterprises.

The MSME sector in India is classified into Micro, Small and Medium based on the size of the initial investment made to start the enterprise. This classification however provides limited visibility into the sector’s finance needs, more so a function of an enterprise’s size and area of operation, type of industry, customer segment, and stage of development. Honing in on the distinctions between manufacturing and service-oriented enterprises provides an example of the sector’s heterogeneity in terms of credit needs and the challenges in accessing formal credit channels.

The service sector accounts for 71% of MSMEs and is dominated by retail trade, eateries, and small transport operators. The addressable debt gap in this sector amounts to INR 0.9 trillion ($ 18 billion). The primary reason for this shortfall is a lack of understanding of the business models and financing benchmarks at play in a sector that almost entirely operates in the informal economy. A second reason is that service sector operations are intangible and entrepreneurs do not have the primary security or immovable collateral banks require to hedge the risk of default.

Although the manufacturing sector accounts for a smaller share of enterprises, its contribution to GDP is greater and its debt gap twice that of the service sector at INR 2 trillion ($40 billion). Manufacturing is more capital-intensive and has longer working capital cycles, especially as payments from buyers are realized with the significant delay of 100 days on average. Since suppliers’ credit remains limited, the working capital demand of enterprises tends to exceed the short-term credit limits offered by financial institutions, resulting in a large financing gap.

To mitigate these challenges and address the financial requisites of service-oriented and manufacturing MSMEs, boiled down respectively to start-up capital working capital, the Government of India has accelerated reforms to facilitate banking the underserved. The first wave of reforms ensured that every registered MSME has a bank account linked to the Udyog Aadhar. This was followed by the operationalization of an equity fund for the MSME sector and the inauguration of development banks and “small finance banks” to cater specifically to the missing middle. In parallel, India’s central bank expanded coverage of credit guarantee schemes that require banks to allocate 40 percent of their credit portfolio to “priority sectors” including MSMEs, and also reassure banks that, in the event of default, the government will make good the loss incurred by the lender up to 85 per cent of the credit facility (RBI, 2016).

Supported by these initiatives, it was expected to see more players and capital flow into the debt gap, resulting in greater volume of credit to MSMEs. The government’s impetus however did not glaze over the banking sector’s perception of small businesses as a high-risk and commercially unviable proposition to lend to, mainly due to the high transaction cost and high risk associated with these businesses. As a result, Indian banks are not inclined to finance MSMEs, especially micro and small enterprises, which predominantly translate to subsistence enterprises in the service sector.

First, the transaction costs associated with sourcing and evaluating MSMEs are high. Banks have limited manpower to scope out small businesses, and the transaction costs of sourcing being constant regardless of loan size, there is a natural incentive for bank agents to fish for sizeable producers in need of larger loans as opposed to corner stores with smaller ticket sizes. Assessing credit worthiness is also more expensive due to the informational opacity of MSMEs. Enterprise promoters are for the most part not financially literate and do not maintain formal accounts or differentiate between business and household finances. In the absence of standard capital benchmarks and credit scores, bank agents are left to base loan needs on cash flows, a time consuming and approximate process.

In addition, promoters lack collateral to secure their loans. Or rather, they lack the right collateral. This may seem paradoxical, given the recent finding that 95% Indian households’ wealth is held in physical assets, but these assets primarily consist of gold and land that are difficult to mortgage in the event of default. While the trend of collateral-free debt is growing gradually, in part thanks to the aforementioned schemes, financial institutions insist 95%-98% of bank loans be secured with immovable collateral, especially in light of the sector’s historically high levels of non-performing assets (RBI, 2017).

So it is that of the overall finance demand of INR 32.5 trillion ($650 billion), 78 percent is either self-financed or comes from informal sources. The banking industry’s reluctance to work with this sector is far from being the singular cause for the debt gap, as MSMEs are almost equally reluctant to avail formal financing. Starting with the human perspective, promoters’ fear of seeing their costly bank applications rejected and the belief that their projects are not worthy of formal investment keeps them from approaching banks. One might wonder how this is given the plethora of credit schemes tailored to them, but according to a recent survey of 85 MSMEs in India, over 50% of promoters were not aware of a single financial scheme, and only 12% had ever resorted to one to obtain financial support (Singh, 2016).

Were MSMEs aware of these schemes, there might also be an economic reason for not availing them. Informal finance currently fuels the sector, and while institutional channels, comprising trade credit, chit funds, and moneylenders, tend to be expensive, non-institutional sources such as family, friends, employers, and joint family businesses represent 95% of informal credit, and float it at minimal or no interest. Granted, these loans come with other strings attached and are limited in capacity, but overhauling quick, cheap money in favour of security and interest-laden loans will require more than preferential policies. When considering the registration, tax, and compliance requirements necessary for MSMEs to be eligible for credit schemes, the benefits of formal financing hardly seem to outweigh the costs of formalization.

In 1992, Dr. Prabhu Ghate, an independent researcher interested in the interaction of formal and informal credit markets, noted that “The expansion of formal credit at the expense of informal is often mistakenly assumed to be an end in itself, and the success of such policies is often discussed in terms of changing relative shares. Their true rationale, however, should be to ‘compete’ the terms of informal credit down by providing an alternative.” Although written over two decades ago, his words hold true, as the priority remains to study MSMEs’ current pathways to growth, and their sources and uses of informal credit, in order for the formal financial sector to put forth better adapted financial products, and for the government to more easily accessible credit facilitation.


#1: Lots of rain, interviews, and some pictures

Sat, 09/23/2017 - 08:10

Hello!

I arrived in India a couple of weeks ago as a recipient of the CASI  Travel Funds for Research Award.  As as third year PhD student in the department of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania, I intend to carry out preliminary field work during my stay here. This will be critical in shaping my research proposal and returning for a longer duration in 2018.

For my dissertation, I wish explore the growth of Vasai-Virar  city in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) through the lens of infrastructure, access, and politics of water. Even though my original idea for doctoral research focused on the question of ‘Smart cities’ and the role of technology in mediating between the state and citizens, it was a visit to my home-town of Vasai-Virar last summer (2016) that inspired me focus on the nuances of spatial change in the urban periphery. Growing up in a village in Vasai-Virar, the notion of the ‘city’ was always associated with taking a local train into Mumbai, rather than the urbanized areas around the railway lines in the region (See Image below).

Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Vasai Virar Region (green) lies northmost in the Metropolitan Region (Source: MMRDA)

However, the process of Vasai-Virar’s urbanisation had picked up pace in the late 1970s, and hastened in the post-1990s liberalisation era. This is true for a lot of urban regions in the country. This change has also seen increasing conflict and contestations over natural resources in the periphery of Indian cities. The process of conversion of agricultural lands into urban or industrial lands, and an increased demand for other resources (power, water etc.), is often contentious and occupies a grey area between the binaries of formal/informal and legal/illegal. A recent study of Vasai-Virar has interrogated how this transformation was carried out by an alliance of state and market forces, creating conditions of spatial injustice (Kamath & Raj, 2016).

My goal is to delve deeper into the phenomenon of calculated deregulation of the Vasai-Virar region and its associated socio-political change. My dissertation uses water as an analytical object through which I explore frictions at multiple scales; competition for water resources at a regional level between towns and cities in the MMR, contestations for water resources between local communities and ‘market’ forces in an urbanizing space, and variegated landscapes of water access in the city. Over the coming weeks, I shall be  reviewing relevant literature, collecting secondary data on demographic changes, and conducting semi-structured interviews with social activists, academics, planners, and political actors.

Upon my arrival, I partnered with my alma mater; Department of Economics, University of Mumbai to provide me with workspace during my stay in Mumbai. Since then, I have had the oppurtunity to interview a few academics, attend a grievance meeting and protest over the proposed plan concerning the Vasai-Virar region, set up meetings with the activists involved, and identify potential informants for detailed interviews.

I shall be writing about these activities over the next three weeks. On a side note, my stay has been punctuated by bouts of heavy rains, halted public transportation, and an unfortunate case of viral fever which knocked me out for a week. This gave me the oppurtunity to stay indoors and do the relevant secondary literature review which would be useful in my fieldwork. Also, earlier this year, I started an Instagram account dedicated to (and to learn)  urban photography. Since my arrival I have tried to post at least one picture documenting urban spaces, symbols, and artifacts on a daily basis.  It has pictures taken during my fieldwork activities as well. Anyone interested can check it out here.

Till the next post!

Works cited

Kamath, L., Radhika, R. (2016). City Building and Regime Creation in the Peripheries of Mumbai. People, Places and Infrastructure: Countering urban violence and promoting justice in Mumbai, Rio, and Durban. Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

 


On Language Barriers and Making Connections

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 21:46

Some of my most special memories in India are of times when communication barriers were at their highest…

I was walking around a market and stopped to get henna. I took a seat on a crate on the sidewalk and as the artist got started, it suddenly started to pour. Since we were mostly under an umbrella, the artist generously insisted on continuing, and when it poured even harder, I knew I would be staying there awhile. (Not to mention I had wet henna that would be destroyed if I dare leave!)

 

 

At first it was a bit (ok, very) awkward, crouching knee-to-knee under a barely large-enough umbrella with the artist and his friend who didn’t speak English. I figured I should try to talk to them since I would be there for a while and asked their names– Dinesh and Verinder. At first I couldn’t understand what they said, so Dinesh gestured for a pen and paper and wrote them out in my notebook in English lettering for me.

 

 

A drawing fell out of my notebook, and from there we looked through my sketches, with them smiling and saying “acha,” “good,” as we bonded over our mutual appreciation for art. To fill the time (and the slightly uncomfortable silence), I eagerly shared all the Hindi I had learned, asking most basic questions and joyfully struggling to understand their generously simple responses. I even embarrassingly showed them my new skill of counting to ten (impressive right?!). And in a technological turn of events, I relied on google translate to help fill in the (many) gaps. (When I kept smudging the henna, I google-translated, “Sorry, I am an idiot” into Hindi).

 

Initial frustration morphed into laughter as we bonded over the ridiculousness of it all. The 20 or so minutes I spent with Dinesh and Verinder under a monsoon downpour, struggling to converse in a conventional way, were some of my most meaningful minutes. 

 

I remember being on a tiny local bus in Jodhpur, headed to Mandore Gardens with my friend Soichi from Japan. Everyone was packed tight, bodies squished against each other, making unavoidable eye contact due to the inward-facing seating arrangement. (A super intimate setting, especially compared to the row-style, relatively impersonal busses I’m used to back home). Not to mention that Soichi and I stuck out like sore thumbs and were on the receiving end of many intensely curious stares. Luckily the ice was broken as those stares slowly turned into smiles. Gesturing towards one of the women’s earrings, I said, “bahut bahut sundar he,” “very very beautiful.” Using a lot of hand motions, our conversation of sorts evolved into an exchange about my desire to get a nose ring, which the women seemed to encourage with smiles and the Indian side-to-side head nod. Even though our language capacities were extremely limited, we were able to engage using body language and the minimal, broken Hindi phrases Soichi and I had picked up.

 

When Soichi and I looked confused about where to get off, one man laughed and said, “Where?” We showed him a piece of paper with the place written in Hindi and from there, at every stop, the people on the bus collectively either shook their heads or nodded so we’d know whether or not to get up. Suddenly our mission became their mission. When we would try to stand up to offer our seats to others who had entered, the people next to us would laugh heartily and playfully tug at us to sit back down since we clearly didn’t know what we were doing. It became apparent that they were watching out for us, and this task of babysitting confused foreigners was fun for everyone.  

 

It’s amazing where smiles, body language and a few phrases can get you. Even though we could barely communicate with each other, the feeling on the bus became one of warmth and mutual interest. What could have been a tense ride became an opportunity for play and experiment.

 

I am grateful for those moments. The times when people met me halfway and we were able to create moments of connection and engagement despite our lack of common ground. My time in India was filled with sparks of human connection- so many gestures of kindness without words. People who broke the silence with warmth… An old woman who gestured to me to come sleep next to her on an overnight bus, a symbol of protection. A family who offered to share their food on a 13 hour train ride. The stone cutter who made me a bindi out of precious stone and placed it on my head. A man who took my bag and carried it when he saw me limping. The shopkeeper who, without me asking, would always talk to me in Hindi so that I would learn.

 

Of course I will have moments like these back in Philadelphia, but they will feel different. Blatant barriers require brazen gestures and those moments of genuine, eager connection felt so much more intentional and frequent. I miss the utter humanity of it all. 

 


I learned more than I gave back.

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 11:29

The 24 hours I had to spend at Indira Gandhi international airport did not make me forget such an amazing summer I had in India. Interning at Aravind was certainly a big highlight of my life, and it was one of the greatest growth opportunities I have received from Penn, so far. That being said, all the lessons I learned over the summer weren’t free pieces of cake. I had to face challenges, and sometimes I appreciated learning the hard way.

Beyond acquiring professional skills in the field I worked in (public health/patient education), I was also provided with tools that are useful in any career or job. First, while at Aravind, I witnessed the importance of being committed and motivated to do the work we do because we believe in the good it does to the community, beyond our personal interests. This has been essential to Aravind Eye Care System’s uninterruptible progress. And so, I want to have a similar commitment in any future profession. Second, I learned that communicating clearly is indispensable in any kind of service. Third, self-guidance was a thing during my internship period. I realized how important it was to find ways to get things done without anyone to just give me everything I needed.

Facing challenges was another way for me to learn. Seemingly simple things like understanding my project and how to go about it weren’t very straightforward at the beginning. Fortunately, I know how to get started on a new project now. It turns out that knowing the right questions to ask and when to ask them is the key to go around any confusion. Otherwise, it becomes almost impossible to manage the little time we have to achieve our goals. Indeed, time management was another challenge that made me discover the trick about reaching out and asking questions. Furthermore, understanding different personalities and how other people think was not always easy, and I don’t think it should be. Rather, diversity is what makes our societies stronger, more beautiful, creating less boring places for humans to live in.

With all this load of life-changing experiences, I owe my gratitude to CASI and everyone who made my trip possible. Thank you so much for offering me a chance to grow both as person and as a future professional. India will remain in my memory, and I won’t forget the welcoming people I met, the language (Tamil) I almost learned, the weekend trips, the delicious food I liked when not too spicy, the heat I survived without burning, etc. The list is not exhaustive. Being back to the US already feels very different, not to mention being back into the school life. Although feeling safer at Penn than in India or Burundi is one of the differences, there is one big distinction between before and after the summer. That is, I am able to tell stories about Aravind and India to anyone who wants to hear about them… and I am proud to say that I learned more than I gave back, not that I didn’t give back.


“The Sheep is on the Ship”: Hiring Accents as Skills in Indian Call Centers

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 23:22

A few weeks back, I was sitting in a room with a job-candidate, Lana, who had come to the company I was partnered with in hopes of being selected for a job at an international call center in Gurgaon.  For the past month, I had been working with One Direction Skill Solutions (ODSS), a research-oriented company that is a member of the skills hiring and training industry in the Delhi-National Capital Region. One of the founders of the company is Dr. Asher Jesudoss, PhD., who is an acoustic phonetician, a veteran of the voice and accent training industry and my friend. I had come to ODSS for the purpose of conducting research on the hiring processes of the call center industry. This summer, as a part of both my research and the company’s recruiting program, my job was to do initial language assessments during hiring drives with the people who came to our office looking to work in call centers. In other words, my job was  to determine if job-candidates such as Lana should sit in an interview for a voice profile (where she would speak to clients on the phone) or a non-voice profile (where she would send emails or chat with clients on IM).

One Direction Skill Solutions (ODSS), the hiring and training company where I conducted research this summer on the CASI fellowship.

Sitting next to Lana, I listened carefully as she introduced herself, trying to pick out grammar errors or pronunciations that fall into the industry’s category of Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). I gave her a topic to speak on: “women’s safety in Delhi”. I checked to make sure her speech rate was slow enough and that she wasn’t making too many awkward pauses. I noticed that she wasn’t fumbling for the right words and hadn’t run out of things to say at any point in our conversation. Finally, I presented her with a list of words and sentences that we used in our office as a tool to diagnose whether the candidate’s accent was “neutral” or “fatal”. At the end of our talk, I assigned Lana a color that indicated her chances of being selected for a job. Red was what we call “fatal”; there were too many errors for the candidate to get any kind of job. Orange meant fit for a non-voice profile. Yellow was potentially a fit for voice profile, and green was a definite fit for an international voice profile (eg. what the industry calls a neutral or global accent).

As I spoke to Lana, I found out a little bit about her life. She was relatively new to Delhi and was looking for a job, so that she could send money home to her parents in Nagaland (a state in the North East of India). It’s a hard adjustment for migrants who come from the North East to Delhi. They face racism and harassment because they don’t look like the “prototypical Indian”. They get called “Chinese” and racial slurs, and they sometimes have difficulty finding places to live and getting work. During our chat, Lana told me that the job opportunities in Nagaland weren’t enough for her to find work there, so she had been forced to come to Delhi and was hoping to find work in a good company.

After talking to her for around ten minutes, I was about to write her down as yellow, when Asher stuck his head into the room. He looked at Lana and me and asked her a few questions. “Can you please say ‘the sheep is on the ship’ and ‘please sit in the seat’.” It was normal for Asher to stick his head into my assessments and give me guidance in the standards of the call center industry. After briefly speaking to Lana, he told me that it would be best for her to sit for a non-voice interview because her grammar was good, but she has too much Mother Tongue Influence to clear the voice assessment. She was an orange. At first, I was confused,  but Asher explained that the company for which we were sourcing job-candidates is particular about some of the vowel sounds, and she was pronouncing both “ship” [shɪp] and “sheep” [shi:p] as “sheep” [ship]. Later, I would learn that some of the call centers rarely hire North Eastern candidates because of this particular vowel sound.

Me conducting a language assessment of a potential job candidate (not Lana).

After working with One Direction Skills Solution, I was starting to get a grasp of what it meant for an accent to be “neutral”, the goal that the training and hiring processes strove towards. The call center industry in India stopped training British and American English to their employees in the first decade of the 2000’s. In place of training foreign accents, many multinational companies started training something called a Neutral or Global Accent. This accent has been the subject of my dissertational research for the past two summers. This summer I was excited to get the opportunity to work alongside the employees of ODSS as they recruited new employees for various call centers in the Delhi area. It was hard work, and the hours were long, but the hardest part for me, as a linguist, was making the leap between what I had deduced a Neutral Accent to be on paper to actually judging human beings in terms of their accents.

Though some members of the industry, Dr. Jesudoss included, rightfully argue that the term “neutral” is a misnomer, many in the call center industry and those who have studied the Neutral Accent (for instance sociologist Aneesh’s recent book (2015)) have described it as a region-less accent. Generally, the Neutral Accent is defined as a way of speaking without Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). However, in my work I have found that this accent is strikingly similar to the manner in which individuals educated in convent schools speak. It is also similar to how English news readers on the TV and radio speak and how the Upper Middle class of South Delhi speaks.

The Neutral Accent is not actually neutral. Accents, by their very nature, can never be neutral. Accents are social identities associated with a person’s speech patterns by a person. Where there is an accent, there must be some identity, even if the particular manner of speech is being proposed to be standard or identity-less. Accents are not equally recognizable for everyone, because they are social processes and their recognizablity is based on the life history of the listener. This summer, I was investigating  the social identity of the Neutral Accent and how that relates to language patterns outside of the call center. After working for One Direction Skills Solutions for almost two months, I have added another question to my list: what happens when an accent becomes a skill?

Though, on the surface, skills pretend to be abilities needed to do a job, they are not quite so straightforward when we examine how skills discourses function in actual workplaces. Take the term “good communication skills” that shows up on nearly every college graduate’s resume in the U.S. The presence of these words on a CV gives no actual information about the way an individual communicates. Instead, it tells us that they have learned that “communication skills” is a phrase that you should write on a resume. The presence of that phrase tells us more about a job candidate’s educational or work experience than the manner in which they speak. Bonnie Urciuoli (2008) discusses the shifty nature of skills as a metasemiotic framework in her work on skills-talk among college grads. She describes how neoliberal subjects (her students) become bundles of skills that are purchasable commodities for employers. However, skills do not only manifest on CVs, but also become the subject of training and hiring protocols where they are embodied in the behavior of trainers and human resource professionals.

Communication training and teamwork training happen frequently in large corporations. The purpose of this training is to assign concrete behavioral patterns to vague notions like teamwork and communication. In a similar manner, though the Neutral Accent is a vague notion that is difficult to pin down, when the Neutral Accent is trained or when a candidate’s accent is assessed based on the criteria of Neutral Accent, some features of this accent become cemented as industry standards. The behaviors that are associated with skills often come from specific class contexts. Good communication skills might manifest as the way in which college educated or middle class white people already tend to speak. This behavioral pattern is not necessarily more suited for the work place than another set of behaviors. The Neutral Accent is similar to Convent English because, according to Arjun Raina (one of the first accent trainers in the industry), the initial workers and trainers in call centers were mostly Hindi speaking members of the upper middle class that were convent educated. Furthermore, convent educated individuals and their manner of speech have historically been privileged in India. In short, both skills and accents are behaviors linked to social persona. The accent is a manner of speech that is stereotypically understood to be used by some people by someone. The skill is a category that is associated with behavior that is linked to an ideal worker.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, thing that happens when an accent becomes a skill in the work place is that some people are structurally excluded from the workforce. In the case of Neutral Accent, I saw numerous examples of individuals speaking with a North Eastern accents who did not get jobs. In many areas of the North East, English medium education is the norm, but still they weren’t getting placed. I discovered later that many states in the North East don’t have convent schools, unlike most of India. Neutral English, as a skill, therefore, carves out a portion of population as a potential workforce.

Another result of an accent being made a skill is that some people are more qualified to judge the presence of the accent than others, based on some aspect of their social identity or social history. I often found myself under-qualified as an accent assessor because the distinctions in accent that were the industry standard were not distinctions that I make on a daily basis living in Philadelphia. Recognizing an accent is a social behavior. Just like someone from Texas can tell the difference between a North and South Texan accent, people who speak with a Neutral Accent are able to judge who has a Neutral Accent or who has MTI. The people who assessed accents were usually from convent or international school backgrounds, and from relatively well-off families. This both created the context for the Neutral Accent, as well as created the need for experts who were already socialized to hear what the industry standard was. I, myself, often missed MTI features because I hadn’t grown up listening to different manners of speech in India and had never learned to make the associations that let others catch these “pronunciation errors” easily. Though I could easily point to what wasn’t American about a job candidate’s accent, I found it much more difficult pointing to what wasn’t neutral.

ODSS language trainer teaching grammar.

This is not to say that there weren’t North Eastern accent trainers. I spoke to four accent trainers from different regions of the North East, but they either had extreme stories of how they worked their network of North Eastern connections to finally get their job, or stories of how they went to school outside of the North East. One went to a convent school in Shillong, Meghalaya (one of the few places in the North East with convent schools). The rest of trainers from the North East with whom I spoke reported that it was hard getting an into in the accent industry as someone from their home states. One woman I spoke to told me that trainers would often either say North Eastern candidates have too much MTI or have fake American accents.

A third thing that happens when an accent becomes a skill, is that the social roles associated with the accent and the job will interact with each other in unpredictable ways, effecting office demographics but also creating markets for things like accent training. In the case of Neutral Accent, the classed associations of the accent have created a conundrum. Those who are convent educated rarely seek to work in call centers. The pay isn’t very good and the night shifts can be very stressful. The people who were the most excited about the prospect of getting a job working the phones were from outside of Delhi, often from regions that are not associated with the Neutral Accent. This creates the need for accent neutralization courses, which are a growing industry in India.

One Direction Skills Solutions is unique in that it offers free training to candidates who cannot clear the interviews, but speak English relatively well. ODSS gets paid for each candidate that gets placed and stays with the company for at least three months, so the practice pays off. It also helps people from the North East and other “non-neutral” regions get jobs in the call center industry, while providing the industry with employees who will be more likely to stick with the same company for multiple years because they need the financial stability. The training gives people who were not socialized to speak with a privileged accent the chance to learn how to pass the language assessment portion of the interview. They also offer instruction in things like writing business emails and technical information that their future employers would expect them to know. Having a basic knowledge about online retail, credit cards, computers and cell phone technology can help them get through the other rounds of the interview process.

One of the ODSS trainers training a batch of non-voice candidates. 

Another way One Direction Skill Solutions is working towards increasing the diversity of the call center industry is by actively recruiting North Eastern job candidates and employing North Eastern individuals in their company. In our office, there were multiple North Eastern employees. ODSS also has a its own small domestic call center in Imphal, the capital of the North Eastern State Manipur. By actively involving members of the North Eastern community in the voice and accent industry, ODSS is positioning itself as a partner for North Easterners looking for jobs in Delhi, a city historically unfriendly towards migrants from the region.

One of the training batches with their trainer. Many of the students are from Nagaland and Manipur, two North Eastern States.

In a way, training offers a short cut to make up for the differences in class and regional backgrounds when appearing for a job interview. Though it doesn’t solve the problem of the inherent biases that exist in the Neutral Accent and other skills-talk, it does give people a leg up and helps bridge the gap that the Neutral Accent creates. It gives a window for increasing the diversity of the industry, which could lead to real change in the long run. They also offer a platform for research (including my own) into these types of the trends in the industry. The example of the Neutral Accent shows us how skills can do more than commodify an individual. They are an avenue for structurally imposing discrimination in hiring practices based on social history. Though the labels of “skill” and “neutral” obfuscate the social indexicality of the Neutral Accent, the market of accents that is emerging in India is a market where racial, regional and class identities are also for sale. We can take the Neutral Accent as an example of how talk about skills, whether they be communication skills, language skills or teamwork skills, can be used to covertly buy and sell social identities.

 

Work Cited:

Aneesh, A. 2015. Neutral Accent: How Language, Labor, and Life Become Global. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.

Urciuoli, Bonni. 2008. “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace.” American Ethnologist 35 (2): 211–28.


The good and the good

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 16:47

I just spent the summer in Araku, loudly talking to the internet modem blaming it instead of the weather for the internet cuts, eating chicken 24/7 with tomatoes, listening to the punctual chant of Muslim communities, showering without a shower but with a bucket and mug and thus having difficulties to properly rinse my hair, wearing kurtis, pants and dupatas to work, and walking along unpaved roads.

Some may choose to avoid this rural environment, but I purposefully chose it with the aim to learn about it. And I did.

I drank liters of delicious, just-made chai tea while conducting interviews with over 70 farmers without knowing Telugu, and finished a report on sociological and economical situations in tribal farmers in the Araku and Dumbriguda mandals (despite the internet) that will help Naandi look for support for their future sustainable projects. I talked with and learned from an incredible tribal community that still keeps and values their traditions and customs, showed this community a little bit of my part of the world, surprised at the work organization and connection to the land that they have, and got to know about government actions for these disadvantaged individuals. I learned about Naandi’s template of development through the sale of the organic coffee grown by these tribal farmers in gourmet shops in France, and about fruit trees that work as livelihoods providers and CO2 reducers. I mentored and advised graduate students seeking to improve their soft skills, and motivated young girls to fight for gender equality and be the drivers of changer in India. So summer was about learning how to work effectively in a team, sharing knowledge and experiences, learning how sustainability is taking shape in India and most importantly, contributing to it, which allowed me to grow professionally.

But I also grew personally. I spend my summer disentangling the knot that India is, understanding its contrasts and its conflicts, admiring its potential and limits, realizing its beauty and ugliness, and loving it anyways. It was about living Indian culture and comparing it with my own, and through this, consolidating my identity. It was about trying to rationalize Indian customs, and finally giving up and just enjoy them.

It was a challenging internship and I feel proud to finish it successfully. I feel sad for the friends I left behind, but excited to see what Naandi will do next to improve India’s youth and communities, and secretly proud to know that I was part of that advancement.

It was quite a great summer, and I am eternally grateful to those unknown but willing hands that sent me in this path of discovery and self-improvement.

 


Bittersweet

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 09:12

It is very hard for me to say goodbye; I’ve been told it is because I get attached to people and places very quickly and easily. Getting attached to Araku – with its beautiful red soils and green hills-, to the staff – who helped us untiringly in our project and introduced us to Indian culture-, or with Naandi- which showed me what sustainability is really like-, attachment was more than possible to happen. And that is why the last week was bittersweet for me.

It was sweet because Taylor and I were concluding our 112-pages report, the ultimate product of our work this summer.

112 pages of research and discussion, analysis and evaluation, editing and rereading. The hard work was worth it, because I was proud of the response that these 112 pages contained: Naandi had not committed cultural murder. By helping Adivasi tribal farmers produce organic coffee to sell it in international markets, Naandi was prompting a cultural change in the community, but one that was within natural boundaries. In other words, the Adivasi community was following a natural evolution of their culture, not being forced by Naandi. Naandi is just another player in their constantly-evolving environment.

112 pages that we had to summarize in a one-hour presentation to other Naandi staff in our last working day. Although only the top officials were invited to our presentation, we managed to invite our driver Santosh; Taylor and I advocated for him and we were adamant in that he should see the work he had helped us with for the last 3 months. At last, Satish, Prakash, and Venkata allowed him to hear the presentation. Naandi had said before that they were working towards a flat organization; however, there is still a lot of ground to cover, especially in this rural town that is very distanced from the city. Having Santosh in the room was one big step for the staff, and I appreciated it.

My last week was also bitter, because I had to say goodbye.

After the presentation, we went to the CPU for our last training session with Taylor. Only this time, we were accompanied by the staff’s children. Satish’s twins were there, together with Santosh’s beautiful daughters, Venkata’s daughter and Prakash’s children. Taylor and I gave them their first volleyball class (well, Taylor did and I helped). The boys were already good, because they had been taught at school or learned with their brothers, but the girls, who were not introduced in the sports culture, were learning from scratch. It was nice to share our last day by leaving a mark in these children, teaching the boys that their sisters could (and should) also be included in games, and teaching the girls that they are free to do exercise and play whichever sports they wanted to. I had to say goodbye to these children.

I also had to say goodbye to Santosh and his family. To give their farewells and express their appreciation for us, Santosh’s family stopped by our guesthouse later in the night. His wife was wearing a sari and carrying packets of mehendi. She spent the next hours drawing intricate designs in our hands, and practicing her English with us. When our hands looked like those of brides who are about to get married, Santosh’s wife gifted us bangles. They were the final touch for my hands’ bridal look. Meanwhile, Santosh and us began remembering all the funny moments we had spent together, and I realized that I had some work to do.

Due to my inability to give a proper farewell in person, I decided to write some goodbye letters.

It was difficult to find some time to write them, because I had to pack. In between wrapping up my bathroom supplies and packing my shoes, I wrote a letter to Santosh. I thanked him for his friendship, for the variety of fruits he had introduced me to, and for the Telugu classes he had patiently given me while driving us back from the fields. I also wrote one for the office, thanking every person for their support: Satish for helping us with information, Prakash for being our translator, and Lakshman, for his delicious tea. The next day, when I gave the entire office my letter, they proudly put my letter in the board by the office’s entrance. Everyone said goodbye to us and wished us our best in the things to come.

We then hopped on the car and drove to the airport. During the ride, I thanked God for the wonderful people I had met in this internship, I thanked Naandi for the opportunity to learn about development projects in India, and I thanked Araku and the mountains for treating me well.

Looking at the red soil, I knew it was going to stay with me for a long time, even if it was in the soles of my running shoes.


“It was so much more than ‘great'”

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 10:12

8 days ago, I finally arrived in the U.S.

5 days ago, I arrived on Penn’s campus; and in that time of a little over a week, I was bombarded with responsibilities of academics, appointments, and work. As I hastily met with my friends who were not already consumed by their own responsibilities, I was consistently met with the question of, “How was India?”

Talk about a loaded question.

“It was great!”

“It was hot! Lol.”

“It was really reeeally great!”

I feel guilty for answering this question in such meaningless words, but it always catches me off guard. You would think that after the summer, I would have thought of a more eloquent answer.

How can I describe my experience in India for 11 weeks in one word? Heck, I can’t even describe it in 10. My own internship that is limited to the hospital boundaries has many facets that I cannot convey in a single passing answer, let alone my own individual through traveling and interactions. Even though I have had the entire summer and 8 days in the U.S to reflect on my time in India, I have not been able to do so. My description of India is defined by the memories through my own experiences; and instead of replying with a one-worded answer, I would love to have time to tell everyone more.

I would love to tell them about Aravind, the incredibly inspiring hospital system that is able to offer subsidized and free services to any patient.

I would love to tell them of the conversations I had with the doctors there, how passionate they are about their work and the precision that they perform surgery.

I would love to tell them of my experience of having an intern status in this different environment, how I learned to advocate for myself and how this internship experience has affected my perspective of myself and my future.

I would love to tell them of my many opportunities to travel throughout the country like to Bangalore, Kodaikanal, Kerala, New Delhi, Agra, and so many more.

I would love to tell them of my first overnight bus ride.

Even as I am reflecting on my own experiences in India, I become overwhelmed with the memories, making it hard to pinpoint exactly how I feel. There is much more of India that I can learn about and explore, so it is unjust for me to answer the question of “How was India?” — I can only describe my own experience of what I had done there. I am very thankful for the opportunity that CASI and the Aravind Eye Hospital have given me this summer. My internship was not limited to the boundaries of the hospital but was thankfully allowed to extend to other parts of the country. The combination of these two opportunities in India have allowed me to learn more about a country that I was unfamiliar with and also expand my own perspectives on what I wanted from myself and others. I will always treasure the memories I have made and the lessons I have learned. Hopefully, this was not the last time I will be in India, whether it be for traveling or academics because I would love to pick up where I left off (in Bodhgaya). Being in India wasn’t only great, it wasn’t only incredible or only inspiring, it was so much more than that.


Conversations

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 19:54

In the beginning, I thought that 10 weeks would be enough for me to learn about everything that I wanted to and to be satisfied with myself at the end of my internship. As the end of 10 weeks approached, I started panicking. 10 weeks was just enough time to reel me into the wonder of the hospital and the lure me into the curiosity of Indian culture. In a way, my alarm at how little time I had left forced me to immediately think about the most important things I wanted to learn, and surprisingly, I simply wanted to interact more with the employees at Aravind. I was interested to see if and how their perspectives on working at Aravind are different because of their position in the hospital. And I simply wanted to learn more about them. During my last few days at Aravind, I had the pleasure of conversing with some the people that I have wanted to talk to at the hospital, but had procrastinated doing so until then. These are their compiled answers through our conversations.

“I initially came to Aravind without knowing about their infamous mission and values. I simply saw an advertisement in the Journal of Ophthalmology and applied. Immediately, I was impressed by the academic opportunities that Aravind provides for all levels of academics whether you are a resident, fellow, nurse, or even a doctor. The doctors and surgeons here were extremely well trained as well. Funny thing was, I am not from Tamil Nadu and so I was not familiar with the language (Tamil), but I that did not deter me from coming here because I was and still am passionate about my quest to learn more about my field. I have worked at Aravind for a while now, and in my time here, the most rewarding part of my job are the patients, the opportunity, and constant interaction to share ideas and knowledge with others in similar fields. I can’t imagine ever finding the same population of patients anywhere else. I love working with them and they are always so wonderful and thankful for what Aravind provides. Aravind is the best place to learn about the subject I love because it attracts a large and varied patient population, it has the technology that only select hospitals have in the rest India, and it implements the extraordinary assistance of free or subsidized surgeries for the patient population. It is absolutely incredible what Aravind has become. A main struggle that I have noticed with my time here is that it is difficult to allocate time for yourself and for family. I am passionate about my work and I love my patients, but it is hard to balance that with your own needs because there is always so much to do and to make yourself better so that you serve others better. Although Aravind provides numerous learning opportunities, it is also up to oneself to actively obtain the knowledge that they want. Especially in specialized fields, one must go out and search for additional learning opportunities. The best part of Aravind are the sisters and the patients. The sisters are often looked over, but they are the backbone of the hospital. They are the sweetest people but are also passionate about the success of the hospital. Everyone does their job to the highest of their ability, and it is truly extraordinary to see everyone working towards a single mission to eliminate needless blindness.”

It was only recently that I began to establish a deeper relationship with this doctor, but it didn’t require me much time to hear the excitement in her voice when she talked about her love of her work and the patients. I can only hope to find the passion that she has while I pursue my academic endeavors.

“I used to work as a consultant in but unfortunately, the company got closed down. I have two children, both are currently in college. I saw an ad for a housekeeping position in the Aravind hostel and applied. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I am happy to do so because the money is needed for my children and family. Hopefully once my children are settled and are in the work force, I will not have to do this anymore. I am not aware about Aravind’s mission and values, I am just focused on making money for my family.”

Although our conversation was brief, I am thankful to gain perspective from someone who is not extremely affiliated with the hospital, but is still part of Aravind. I always saw her in my guest house, but only exchanged shy hellos. Her smile was so welcoming that I immediately felt more comfortable in an environment where I was unfamiliar with and made my day a little brighter. Our conversation also reminded me of the sacrifices that my parents too have made to provide for their family, for which I take for granted at times.

“Ever since I was younger, I was interested in medicine. This may have been because a couple of my relatives, and I saw the respect and stability that came with medicine. After taking my entrance exam and having the opportunity to obtain my medical degree, I narrowed down my interests to ophthalmology. Although Aravind is extremely hectic on all days of the week, I still love it and it is what I had expected. I love that it allows me to have a huge exposure to the many different types of surgery cases due to its high patient volume that I would not be able to get at any other hospital. At a different hospital, I would say that residents would get an average of 100 surgeries in 3 years. At Aravind, it would be a minimum of 200 cases. I am also amazed at the equal quality of eyecare given to each patient regardless of background or income. The doctors here are all so passionate about what they do and they are extremely caring towards the patients. I learn not only about surgical technique from the doctors but how to care and speak to a patient – I was initially more impatient and awkward, but after seeing the doctors speak and calm patients with ease, I feel more comfortable in what I do. I still have 3 years left at Aravind. Right now, I am practicing my sutures in the wet lab, and hopefully in a few months, I will be practicing on a real eye. Next month, I will be on night duty, which is when residents are on call throughout the night in cases of emergencies. This is also a period of absolutely no sleep, so I am not excited for it! Because we are so busy working 6 days a week typically from 7 or 7:30am until 5:30pm (or later if there are meetings, conference calls, or additional classes), I am unable to visit my family as often as I would like. I have an older sister who just completed dental school and a younger brother. I originally applied to be at a different branch, not the Aravind in Pondicherry, because the climate at the other branch was similar to Kerala; unfortunately, my first choice filled up.”
I had a closer relationship with Ruksana than I had with other residents, but it was still difficult to meet up because we had different schedules. She was always genuinely friendly and concerned for my travels and time at Aravind, and she always helped in any way she could. Ruksana initially approached me one day while I was walking to the hospital because she had heard that I wanted to go to Kerala. Being from Kerala herself, Ruksana was wondering if she could offer any advice or guidance into traveling there. IT WAS SO SWEET. I wish her the best of luck in her next 3 years at Aravind and for her bright future.

Ruksana and I after eating dinner one night

*Some names have not been used for anonymity


For the Love of Food

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 13:38

It sounds a bit obnoxious, but one of my favorite parts about living in India was eating food. Before traveling out of Delhi for the weekend, I would search up on the traditional foods of the area and rifle through google reviews and Zomato for the highest-rated places to eat. Travelling and food had always come hand in hand for me, as I believe that a large part of experiencing culture is based around eating. From the traditional Tibetan thukpa noodles in Dharamsala, and the Rajasthani thali in Jaipur, to the traditional appam and fish curry in Kerala, and the multitude of regional cuisines available in Delhi, I was lucky enough to try a variety of cuisines. Coworkers saw my enthusiasm for food and often shared the lunch they brought from home, made by themselves or members of their family – some of this home food was the best food I ate.

Sabzi and a lot of butter roti in Udaipur

However, aside from the actual food I ate, I also reflected on the way I ate and my overall relationship with food, and how it has been shaped by my cultural background, upbringing, and position as a Korean American woman in a post-colonial world. Like many people, especially women, I consider my relationship with food complex, because food affects how I look at my body. From a young age, I grappled between my love for the taste of food and desire to lose weight, but I found it hard to explain this to some older Korean people, who lived through difficult times of starvation and war; unlike me, they did not have the choice of refusing to eat – it was a matter of survival. I questioned why women of color, myself included, strive towards an ideal of thinness influenced both by Eurocentric beauty standards and notions of femininity.

Me and momos in Dharamsala

During my time in India, since the way that I ate changed, I was able to associate eating food less with maintaining beauty ideals, but rather more with a sense of camaraderie. At Penn, I often eat meals alone and on the run, and my friends’ busy schedules sometimes make it hard to find to sit down together and have a meal. Living in Delhi, it was refreshing to eat breakfast with my Airbnb host, lunch with coworkers, and dinner with friends who were eager to take me to their favorite places around Delhi. It sounds cheesy, but I was reminded of the ability of food to bring people together. Sometimes it takes experiencing something to realize how much I yearn for it.

Overall, this summer I thought more about what and how we eat, the societal significance of food, and the differences between various cultures. I’m not sure as to exactly how this experience will impact my dietary habits once I’m thrust back into Penn, but I know I will approach eating and food with a more optimistic attitude than before.