At one of India’s oldest universities, Urmi Nanda Biswas’ vast office is mostly covered by an oval table at the helm of which she sits, advising her many research associates as they pop in and out looking for her guidance. As I pause and restart my recorder to make way for the interruptions so she can carry on her duties, I realise how this room is such a perfect fit for someone like Biswas. She has earned her position as Professor and Head of Department of Psychology, at MS University, Baroda, by “working four times as hard as any man would need to,” said the applied social psychologist, with 29 years of research experience.
Biswas set forth on her work when she was 21 year with a PhD from Allahabad University on a critical topic. “I was trying to see why some people perpetuate in poverty and some people move up, what are the psychosocial factors that make people strive for better socio-economic mobility?”
Poverty in India takes its roots from the legacy left behind by the historic caste system. ‘Higher’ tasks that are also lucrative are reserved for higher castes. The lower classes thus remain in poverty, attempting to catch up to mainstream society. This caste-based system of social economics, despite several quotas in education and public sector employment, still trickles down to gross inequality we see in the country even today.
For her doctorate research, Biswas used questionnaires, interviews and participant observation in tribal villages in Orissa to study the psychology of individuals who are socio-economically mobile – those who move up in life and also of those who are struck below the poverty line. The participants came from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes (lower classes) and general class (higher classes).
“I found that self-efficacy – one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed, plays a big role. So does planning behaviour.” Another finding Biswas considers “striking” was the prevalence of tokenism in higher positions in society. “People who got to the higher positions through a quota or reserved seats, for example under secretaries in the government, exhibit tokenism. The have been given a position of responsibility but the attitude of apathy to social change persists.”
“I also used the premise of relative deprivation and perception. People who do not perceive that they are poor would not strive to become socially and economically mobile. When people perceive themselves as poor, they will strive hard.”
With this work as her base, Biswas went on to venture into gender stereotyping, public health and psychology in adolescents as well as HR and organisational psychology.
Female foeticide for population control
Most recently, she has finished a comparative study on motivations behind female foeticide in two Indian states – Orissa and Gujarat.
“Orissa is supposed to be a very poor state. But ten districts in the state have high sex ratio – the number of girls is higher than boys. Whereas Gujarat, a prosperous state, is one of the four states in India with the lowest sex ratios. The town of Mehsana, in Gujarat, had the lowest sex ratio in the country – 760 girls for 1000 boys when we started the project.” Biswas chose two towns in both states, one with a relatively high sex ratio and another with the lowest. She and her team then interviewed and carried out focus group discussions with gynaecologists, paramedics, pregnant mothers, their families and NGOs to examine how people in these two states perceive female foeticide.
“We found that in Orissa, it is more of a tradition that they want to have boys. In Gujarat, they have a lot of respect for girls, they say we will educate them, attitude-wise everything is fine but at the end of the day, they would like to have a boy. They do not have any reason – the attitude is very positive towards girls – but still, a boy should be there.”
Biswas remembers one particular interview distinctly. “One of the gynaecologists we interviewed said: ‘They will go on reproducing until they have a baby boy. If we want to control the population, sex-selective abortion (aborting the girls until a boy is conceived) can be used,’” she recited to my gaping face.
Biswas’ research is filled with such social realities, birthing in individual psychology and stemming from cultural conditioning that often snowballs into social evils. Most of the gynaecologists she interviewed agreed that female foeticide was taking place but denied their own involvement. “They said other gynaecologists were doing it in sly. In Gujarat, it is very strict; because of the Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT); there are many raids at gynaecology clinics and there is a lengthy formal registration procedure and checks to keep a sonography machine. But in spite of that, female foeticide goes on.”
The comparison between the two states led Biswas to the insightful finding of non-cooperation between NGOs and government-led social initiatives in Gujarat.
“In Orissa, it is very heartening to see that NGOs have accepted the responsibility of bringing change; there is a very active collaboration between the government and the NGOs. Most of the time, the NGOs working on these issues are invited to be a part of state level committee meetings. They go and evaluate the clinics.”
In Gujarat, however, Biswas noticed that NGOs and the government fail to collaborate effectively. “They don’t join hands to do the job. There is an attitude that if it is the government agenda then the government should handle it themselves.”
This is a sad state of affairs for the state she now calls home, as the professor of social psychology believes that “when the community participates it becomes easier to bring social change.”
Culture plays a major role
After all these years exploring different aspects of social psychology in India, Biswas has been gradually realising that culture has a major role in determining expectations people have of themselves and from other individuals in society. Especially in India, with all its complexities brought on by diversity of cultures in one place, it is impossible to put a finger on the psychology of Indian society, per se. It can only be looked at through the lenses of a specific issue and the corresponding culture surrounding it. But one thing is clear to Biswas – our culture is directly influencing how we are thinking.
She explains with the example of her work on understanding gender equality in collaboration with Swedish and Indian colleagues as part of the collective SIGN – Sweden India Gender Network: “First, we started with gender equality as a value but then we quickly came to the conclusion that people understand gender equality differently in different countries and in different cultures.”
“In India, we talk about equal opportunity. We have a law from the Factory Act that says there should be equal opportunity between men and women. People consider this as a gender equality…” So what’s behind the continuing inequality in India despite the constitution clearly making ‘inequality’ illegal?
“It is a culturally construed and culturally respected notion that women should be looking after the family and should not be working after evening. The intention is not to deprive the woman of jobs, nor is it based on a thinking that she is incapable of doing these jobs, but society thinks that she should be protected, taken care of.”
In other cultures, Biswas pointed out, the whole connotation is very different. “For example, in India, we have equal pay [except for actors and sportspeople]. Equal pay for equal positions in many of the countries considered gender advanced, is still a struggle.”
“When people from foreign cultures look at India’s gender inequality, they might see it in the same context of gender sensitisation as theirs. But everything has to be seen in its own context – the socio-historical-political evolution of the country and the cultures in it need to be acknowledged.”
“To understand a concept in its totality you have to account for socially relevant constructs,” she concluded.
To support her research, Biswas has been resourceful in seeking out and earning grants from the likes of Population Council, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Forte – Swedish Research Council for Health and the likes, authored many books that are used as textbooks in psychology studies around the world and won several awards for her over 50 research papers.
“I am planning to bring out another book on gender. Springer (the publisher) is after my life for a draft but I have to send to press another book that I have written about organisational values and attractive workplaces with my Swedish collaborators,” she said smiling.
Even as a young girl, Biswas knew she wanted to get into academics, like most of her family. “My father and all his brothers were working in higher education institutions in the country. I was very motivated to be in academics because of them. One of my uncles, Dhirendra Narayan Nanda, was a great scientist, he has worked in most of the IITs, he worked in Germany for a long time.”
In a supportive academic Oriya family, Biswas’ way into academia “was a very straight choice”.
“In my last year of M.Sc at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, I got the UGC-JRF position. I did my PhD, a post-doc from SP University in nearby Vidyanagar and joined MSU Baroda’s Psychology department as a teacher in 1996. In 2011, I became the head.”
As she spoke, one of her students entered the room and walked towards Biswas sobbing due to certain misgivings in the department. Her professor hugged her and handled the situation like the calm and assertive woman she is, offering the bigger perspective but also like a mother.
She went on to tell me about her husband, Saswata Narayan Biswas, a professor at Institute of Rural Management, Anand, who she has often collaborated in writing books and research. They have two sons, who she says they have raised to be “emotionally and physically self-sufficient.”
Positive about change
Getting here hasn’t been easy, affirms Biswas. There have been mistakes that have set her back. “As a woman, you have to work four times as hard as any man would need to get the same recognition. For people to really admit that you are capable, you have to prove yourself again and again.”
“Because of the gender stereotypes in our society, if a male misses something, the society will turn a blind eye to the mistakes but it is not the same for a woman. If a woman is in the same position, you are always under scrutiny so you cannot afford to go wrong anywhere.”
“I could have joined the institute my husband works at. But consciously I chose not to because when a husband and wife work together in the same institute, many of your accomplishments will be undermined based on the thinking that you are getting promoted because of your husband.” Much of Biswas’ research work, like this one, reflect her personal choices.
Biswas is positive and believes that things are changing. “As a society, we are becoming more and more individualistic so you don’t have to be dependent on anybody, emotionally, physically and financially.”
“I’m learning a lot from my PhD students. They are much bolder than I ever was. They can voice their opinions, they have the courage to walk out if they feel that their dignity is violated. So that is a very welcoming change that is coming in the society.”
According to her, the ‘role expectation’ from girls and women are now changing and the capabilities and potential of a woman are being redefined. The attitude of females towards themselves and other females gets the credit for this positive change. “Now the girls would not take anything lying down. This will bring the social change… this is bringing the social change, in fact,” she said.
This change is happening fast, she believes. “One decade is good enough time,” for things to turn around.
“We have to get used to the fact that women are working, they are part of the workforce. We are figuring out how we can facilitate this and find solutions to the constraints that society now faces with regards to child rearing and family management.”
This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are travelling across India to meet some unsung women scientists.