Should the Ease of Doing Business Really Be Our Top Priority?

Why does “hunger”, “youth employment” or “women’s empowerment” not acquire the same valence?

One reads with ‘trembling pleasure’ (a phrase used by Ralph Waldo Emerson to describe his emotions when welcoming the new poet on the American scene, Walt Whitman) that in the World Bank’s index of “ease of doing business”, India has moved up by 14 ranks, becoming the top ranked South Asian country and third in BRICS.

To be counted and classified in these indexes is something of a spectacular achievement, in the domain of the market, industry and high finance. Being indexed and placed within standards designed to evaluate and adjudicate is an important part of our lives, as individuals and as a nation. They indicate a set of standards adopted by organisations and countries.

A standard is a set of “agreed-upon rules for the production of (textual or material) objects”. They “embody goals of practice and production that are never perfectly realised”, write Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star in Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. The important thing is, “every successful standard imposes a classification system, at the very least between good and bad ways of organising actions or things we speak of classifications as objects for cooperation across social worlds, or as boundary objects”. Bowker and Star define these objects as

“…those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them. In working practice, they are objects that are able both to travel across borders and maintain some sort of constant identity. They can be tailored to meet the needs of any one community (they are plastic in this sense, or customizable). At the same time, they have common identities across settings. This is achieved by allowing the objects to be weakly structured in common use, imposing stronger structures in the individual­ site tailored use.”

Such objects could be “tools, artefacts and techniques, and ideas, stories, and memories -objects that are treated as consequential by community members”.

“Business” currently is one such boundary object: it appeals to, travels across and makes sense to different geographical locations in the world, different forms of governments and different cultural traditions. “Business” gets customised as a term, a practice and an idea in diverse contexts, such as the transnational World Bank and a democratic India, totalitarian China and Brexiting-UK.

Yet, even when it is plastic enough to be “tailored to meet the needs of any one community”, it will – must – have  “common identities across settings”. It is this common identity, and its attendant demands, that is unsettling when we become proud of certain kinds of indexes with particular boundary objects.

Also read: We’ve Got the Ease of Doing Business – but for Whom?

“Business” as a boundary object with a common identity demands from each of the communities. This includes a reduction in state control, the forgetting of sovereignty over policy, people and resources; deregulation and privatisation, if business has to be conducted across geopolitical, cultural and national borders.

“Business” as a boundary object that enables ranking of various so-called sovereign states asks these states to alter themselves so as to fit into the global index and standard. Indexing and this classification of nations on their “ease of doing business” seek to impose, or arrive at by consensus, “cooperation across social worlds”. In other words, nations must alter themselves in order to cooperate for the purpose of “business”.

Over a period of time, the object becomes integral to the communities it occupies or traverses. Bowker and Star call this trajectory “naturalisation”:

“Naturalisation means stripping away the contingencies of an object’s creation and its situated nature The more naturalised an object becomes, the more unquestion­ing the relationship of the community to it; the more invisible the contingent and historical circumstances of its birth, the more it sinks into the community’s routinely forgotten memory. Commodity and infrastructural technologies are often naturalised in this way. In a sense they become a form of collective forgetting, or naturalisation, of the contingent, messy work they replace.”

In other words, once the “ease of doing business” has been naturalised, a community will forget how this ease was achieved in the first instance – what did we lose, modify, erase, corrode as a community to facilitate the making and progress of this object called “business”? Did we lose sovereignty? Erode public accountability? Alter public commitments? Who did it, or who was it meant to serve? These questions, when “ease of doing business” becomes naturalised into our thinking and our social imaginary, become irrelevant or forgotten.

Perhaps to look at other indexes with their particular boundary objects may be deemed to be pessimistic and even anti-national, but let us.

In the World Happiness Ranking, 2019, India stands at 140 among 156 nations surveyed by UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network), behind, notably, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh. In 2018, we were at 133.

In the Global Hunger Index, India’s condition  is termed “serious” and we are ranked 102 out of 117 countries.

Also read: ‘Nationalising Losses, Privatising Profits Has Become Govt Policy’: BMS President

In the Gender Empowerment Index we are “medium”, and ranked 130 out of 189 in the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Reports. We rank 95 among 129 nations measuring factors such as poverty, health, education, literacy, political representation and equality at the workplace according to the Sustainable Development Goals Gender Index developed by the UK-based Equal Measures 2030 (a joint effort of several organisations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and International Women’s Health Coalition).

According to employment reports, the labour force participation rate in terms of % of population is at 48%, and among women it is at 20%. The unemployment rate is at 5.3%, the youth unemployment rate is 22.5%, and the share of youth not in employment, education or training is 48.3%, according to International Labour Organisation data. In other reports, the unemployment rate is rising at 3.5 %, and has doubled in 2019.

As a nation, supposedly, we are also low in resilience and high on vulnerability when it comes to disaster preparation and recovery, and according to one report, 36 million Indians face flood risks.

In the midst of an “ease of doing business”, where “business” becomes the boundary object for nations to meet over, discuss and acquire the necessary meanings, why does “hunger” or “youth employment” or “women’s empowerment” not acquire the same valence?

While we concede that classifications and indexing systems such as the above are here to stay, and they naturalise what are clearly operations of power that divide the world, we need to also reclassify classifications. Thus, Bowker and Star tell us in their conclusion:

“The moral ques­tions arise when the categories of the powerful become the taken for granted; when policy decisions are layered into inaccessible techno­logical structures; when one group’s visibility comes at the expense of another’s suffering.”

This means, simply, asking why one index such as the “ease of doing business”, or “business” itself must be at the cost of ignoring another index which shows the levels of starvation or youth unemployment. We opted for one, but not the other. This means: we choose business over employment or alleviation of poverty. “Business” gets naturalised, and hunger is an aberration, if the classificatory systems have their way.

All systems of classification are, in the guise of social ordering, embodiments of power relations. When we play into the hands of those who classify us only because we help corporate interests, we have lost the ability to ethically evaluate these classifications. A country can be judged by the classificatory systems it wishes to, and works to, fit into. Classifications, whether it is about racial categories or the above-listed indexes, are modes of constructing and maintaining the social order.

Thus, in the order of nations, a country can be excluded or included, ranked high or low, depending on how it fits into a classificatory system. But the larger question for us to ask as a nation is about which systems do we wish to fit into. One could say the Gender Empowerment Index is a definite one we should rise in, and we should never figure in the Hunger Index at all.

In the age of corporate nationalism, we choose to ignore dying, unemployed, disempowered women, youth and the marginalised when they are indexed by global agencies. And we celebrate the conglomerates and industrialists whose sales figures would conceal the materiality of those whose lives, and deaths, produced those figures.

It was not for frivolous reasons that Mario Puzo used as the epigraph of his cult novel The Godfather the famous line from Balzac: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.” Extrapolating: when a nation endorses fortune-building over hunger, is there a crime behind the index?

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.