Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Apologies for the long delay, dearest Readers—I’ve been busy hobnobbing with some of India’s finest energy geeks and politicos. I’ve yet to fully digest the unevenly electrifying boluses they’ve slipped me, but here are some musings on what’s going well and what’s not.

1. Wooing the elites

‘Will they actually talk to you?’ innocent civilians often ask. Simply gaining access to the elites is the most obvious research hurdle—although it is eminently doable.

As a former Oxford Union president once Facebook-boasted with characteristic douchebaggy flair:

It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.

The researcher of elites, one guide advises, needs many of the characteristics of the social climber: ‘everyone who might possibly know someone, must be contacted and asked if they will give introductions, vouch for one, and otherwise help one’s enterprise.’ (Non-corporate) Brits would undoubtedly cringe at my naked opportunism—I do cringe inwardly, alas, and often wimp out of asking directly—but people in India are fortunately more sympathetic, and friends, acquaintances, and interviewees have often been very helpful. Let’s face it: all elites of all societies operate on this principle, this one just more unabashedly than most.

The barriers to elite access have probably been overrated, too—at least for someone in my position. As wonderfully-named pair Gewirtz & Ozga argue, access is more likely to be granted if the researcher seems ‘perfectly harmless’. As a young, female foreigner, in my interviewees’ eyes I’m about as harmless as a sickly baby koala, and can get away with asking ‘naive’ awkward questions while they play teacher. (Senior politicians and civil servants in Britain would be far more suspicious and hostile, I’m sure.) The exception is business elites, who find me about as appealing as gonorrhoea on toast.

Physical access has been the most demeaning part of the whole process—although only for international conversations. Arriving 15 minutes early at the Australian High Commission, I was told I couldn’t wait outside but had to keep moving. So I sullenly read a book, taking a few steps every couple of minutes as the guards eyed me. At the American embassy the suspicion was probably my own fault: I was inadvertently carrying a highly questionable electronics-filled package. Visions of Gitmo flashed past my eyes.

2. The lost art of conversation 

The single most important technique for successful elite interviews, it is widely agreed, is extensive, customised preparation. True, except several interviewees have asked for almost spontaneous meetings—two hours’ notice on a Saturday for one particularly interesting bureaucrat. A far bigger problem, though, has been what Susan Ostrander called elites’ endearing

tendencies to converse easily, freely, and at great length but not necessarily with the kind of substantive content the research requires.

Try as I might, I just can’t get some of them to shut up and answer my questions, rather than trotting off down entertaining tangents, even when I’ve already outlined my terribly optimistic ‘agenda’ for the meeting. With an embittered sigh, one expert simply advises that it is courting frustration and failure to go in expecting clear answers to particular questions; digressions and overall impressions may be as useful, and are much more likely to be obtained. The most interesting details have emerged so far when interviewees are most relaxed and conversation is flowing freely (so turning on a recorder is also unthinkable). Sigh. Tips on a postcard, please.

3. Are they lying?

Everyone expects those with power to lie. But do they lie more than other people? How does any ethnographer know their informant is ‘telling the truth’? Actually, my experience seems more like that of Julian Brash as he investigated New York City’s business elites and municipal authorities. He began expecting to have to probe the linkages between capitalism and the bureaucracy indirectly and subtly, but was surprised to find many interviewees were open about it. Here too, as Brash suggests,

the powerful operate in a world that is almost completely self-justified, thus rendering obscuration and dishonesty unnecessary.

I am but a gnat on the Indian elites’ windscreen, and most are convinced they’re (trying to) do the right thing.

4. Are elites people too?

Before we hit the field, each research project goes up before NHS death panel-like bureaucrats who assess whether it will die/be cruelly amputated/allowed to struggle onwards towards the light. This committee also rigorously probes the project’s morality (although admittedly they do seem unhealthily fond of making mice innards luminous). This makes sense: anthropologists—who in any case tend to be ethically sensitive types, innately prone to outbreaks of fruitarianism and adopting street puppies—have traditionally worked with vulnerable subjects, seen as requiring protection and empowerment.

But what about when the asymmetry of status, voice, and power between subjects and researcher is reversed? Elites clearly don’t need humble research-lepers to empower them. What are the ethics of interviewing someone who can shield themselves from exposure or criticism, and quite possibly have you deported on a whim? Where is the line between self-censorship and deception? Some argue even obtaining informed consent from such interviewees ‘seems an impossible ideal…an implicit double standard’.

Inevitably, there are researchers who have (arguably) taken this too far (David Mosse’s controversial ‘breach of trust’ in belatedly deciding to write an ethnography, Cultivating development, of his own DFID colleagues; Jennifer L. Pierce’s getting hired as a paralegal at law firms to carry out covert participant observation). In fact, I’ve found most interviewees supportive of critical, political research. As Gewirtz & Ozga found, the powerful understand the purpose of academic research more than most others; indeed, already two have urged me to write a book on specific aspects of Indian energy policy. Elites may be more beautiful and damned than the rest of us, but they also appreciate most the analysis of how power works.

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O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! On Friday, the long-anticipated event finally arrived. An occasion so dazzling that the streets leading to the swanky Taj Palace venue were decked in banners, the tickets for the 950 participants cost US$1,200 (I had somehow sneaked in free under the auspices of an amiably evil industrial lobby group, who seemed to believe I belonged to an unspecified embassy), and Manmohan Singh himself was turning up for the opening… Yes: the 7th Asia Gas Partnership Summit!!!!!

Over breakfast, I casually eyeballed the programme one final time—and nearly coughed out my dubious masala toast. You’ve guessed it: I managed to miss the Prime Minister’s speech. Sigh. Let’s move swiftly on.

Laughing gas!

Luckily, I knew much backup glamour was in store given the summit’s tubthumping subtitle—’Evolving Dynamics of the Asian Gas Market: Challenges of Sourcing, Integration and Sustainability’. And boy, it didn’t disappoint!

The fifty speakers included some crackers: sweating Brits in loud ties, hilarious moustache styles from Jafar to Stalin, a US State Department man with Bill Gates’ voice, a cynical-eyed International Energy Agency leader in scarlet, an icy Gazprom man who held the podium with a featherlight killer’s grip, and even a Turkmen who deployed Borat syntax and a sinister gothic Powerpoint. The host stressed the need to ‘attract the younger generation’ to gas with a picture of a sexy young lady and a nozzle. Every now and then an American would joke about their continent’s ridiculously low (and charmingly named) Henry Hub gas prices: ‘We wish this winter had been colder!’ and everyone white would laugh. And, amidst the garish chandeliers, the Taj’s food was solidly good—we did some serious gas guzzlin’!

Fracking brilliant!

The overall mood was one of buoyant optimism—’Are we entering a golden age of gas?’—for three main reasons:

  1. Gas is inherently attractive. It’s much cleaner than coal, producing less than half the carbon dioxide and far fewer noxious fumes and particulates—so gas advocates claim it’s the ideal ‘transition fuel’ before the great renewables takeoff, to the extent you’d think it was carbon-neutral ambrosia and not a fossil fuel. Gas plants are also quicker and cheaper to construct than coal plants (although this isn’t true of the refrigerated LNG [liquified natural gas] that everyone is talking about shipping across the world). There’s also a lot of gas about: the world has 250 years of estimated reserves.
  2. The declaration of the new ‘age of gas’ at this point of time—in case you’ve been living under a rock!—is largely down to the American ‘fracking revolution’. Fracking can free natural gas from shale, and has abruptly turned the United States from a gas importer to a potentially large exporter. The price of gas in America has plummeted (to the extent that companies are abandoning it as unprofitable and opting for oil rigs, making the sector in the short term a victim of its own stunning success). Other countries all want a piece of the action.
  3. Brand spanking new 2,200km cross-country pipeline

    In India, gas also promises geopolitical dividends. The prime minister took the opportunity to announce the dedication of a new cross-country pipeline, which he said he hoped would soon be linked to TAPI. This latter ‘peace pipeline’ is planned to run Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (anybody spot any problems with this?). A Pakistani dignitary was on hand to claim that pricing would be finalised within a month and gas pumping by 2016 at the latest; the Asian Development Bank promised a huge tranche of money. The project has been under discussion for at least twelve years, but maybe this time… Then sweetness and light between the TAPI countries will follow, and milk and honey will flow throughout the lands.

A load of hot air?

Great! Clean development and reliable power and regional peace, right? Alas, no. In public, 1¾ days of the conference were all sunbeams and puppydogs. Between sessions, state gas officials complained the summit wasn’t addressing their real concerns, and private sector players called it ‘pie in the sky’ and ‘old wine in new bottles’.

In the final session, a variety of influential politicians and technocrats—their power indicated by their extraordinarily bad dress sense—finally had their say. To put it mildly, they pissed on the Bunsen burner parade.

The most crucial problem is price. There is no unified world gas market and enormous Asian demand—not only from a hungry China, but also from traditional exporters like Indonesia, Malaysia, and even UAE and Saudi Arabia, who’ve crippled their domestic sectors with consumer subsidies—means it’s a sellers’ market. So while prices might be astonishingly low in the self-sufficient US, they’re almost seven times higher in India and higher still in Japan (cue the F-word: Fukushima). This means in India coal is still far cheaper and more attractive.

Moreover, to fulfil their development obligations the two biggest sectors, power and fertilisers, both demand gas at far lower rates than in the international marketplace. The giant state-owned firms like event hosts GAIL and sponsors ONGC are forced to sell fuel for fixed prices to these sectors, only partially compensated by the state. A representative of the Planning Commission, the brains behind the central government, emphasised that this isn’t going to change rapidly. Gas might be brought in to cope with gaps between peak demand and supply, and to diversify and secure India’s energy portfolio, but the Age of Gas in India has yet to flare.

Gas fired.

Inspiring token from gas chap who promises to make me 'student cum entrepreneur'

Being the only academic at a titanic corporate networking event is, alas, like being a leper at a children’s party. We were all wearing affiliation tags on dangling navel-level scarlet lanyards, the equivalent of ringing a bell to announce my necrotising hunchbacked presence (though at least the 99% male population stared a little lower than usual). People backed away in horror, crossing themselves; my only hope was to seize a business card from the runts of the herd before they recognised my affliction. At one point I thought I’d finally made a friend, but he turned out to have taken pity only to foist New Age business philosophy upon me (naturally, his other enterprise when he’s not flogging hydrocarbons).

An ambivalent conclusion, then. But there’s hope for India, and for me. I’ve heard the solar hippies are much more friendly. And I imagine the wee coal chaps whistle a lot and respond very well to lone damsels in their midst.

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EPILOGUE

This morning, I casually put on the business motivation CD as the gas bloke keeps trying to call, and idly googled the company, BWW. After a couple of brief detours—Google at first helpfully translated BWW into ‘BBW’, the slightly alarming obsession with big beautiful women—I found it.

Crikey Moses. BWW turns out to be an international scam/cult affiliated with creepy multinational Amway. It’s a classic pyramid scheme (dare I say the word Ponzi?), in which the top tier accumulates vast wealth from the efforts and hopes of a constantly rotating lower membership. Like a twisted version of Avon, the bottom stratum must desperately try to sell overpriced health food and cosmetics to their friends and family—and are encouraged to buy a big chunk themselves. The CD is an example of the company’s indoctrination material, which it also flogs in vast quantities to its wide-eyed membership. The message contains a healthy dose of greedy materialism, mixed with a dollop of evangelical Christian rhetoric, mockery of poor people, and emphasis on married couples as the ideal business unit (the women should stay at home, of course). Yum.

Do I look like a cult member?! Clearly I really need to work on my networking style…