India, Collapse and Resilience

Concepts I will rummage though: Collapse, Resilience, Pluralism, India, complex society, nation-state, democracy.

Complex Societies

For Tainter “complex societies are problem-solving organizations, in which more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation, more inequality, and more kinds of centralization and control emerge as circumstances require.”

Based on this statement, I assume that Indian society is, and has been highly complex for a long part of its history. It has a high tendency for multiple and deep levels of stratification. Is that a property of highly pluralistic societies? In the past, the caste system prevailed, and today we face an ever-increasing disparity in income levels. This has been fuelled by globalisation and the liberalisation of the Indian Economy. Is this increasing income disparity the new caste system? Can Indian society never get rid of this characteristic of itself – will it just take a different form as time progresses? Is this a characteristic of pluralism again?


According to Tainter, “a society is collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” or “loss of sociopolitical structure.” After collapse the system either ceases to exist or, at best, exists in a simpler and much attenuated form. As Tainter suggests, though, collapse is not simply a matter of scale; it is also an issue of speed.

Internal conflict and terrorism is commonplace in some parts of India. While Kashmir hogs the international limelight, many more conflicts continue to shake the state. Movements seeking independence from the state are gaining strength in the Maoist belt. The North-East despises the centre and is a hotbed of rebellion. Like all movements, these have an ideological face steeped in history and politics. Their angst and motivation however is attributed to exploitation and poverty. Is balkanization (collapse) of the Indian state polity a future possibility? The state machinery uses its regular tools – the media, coercion, force and violence to quell these movements. Some intellectuals attribute the strong hold over Kashmir as a measure against balkanization. Letting go off Kashmir would give hope to the multiple other movements seeking a voice of their own. It would be one step short of a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity – in essence, collapse.

The educated sections of society have grown up on a diet of the idea of India envisioned by Gandhi and Nehru – a unified nation where its diversity is its strength. Intellectuals, historians and political scientists marvel at how long the idea of the Indian nation state has managed to hold fort, in spite of predictions that forebode otherwise. (I was first exposed to this through India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha’s seminal book about the history of Modern India.)

I sometimes wonder if the large sections of underprivileged Indians would probably be better off if the state broke down into smaller nation states. This is a thought that appears plausible after I read Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. From empirical observation, many smaller, less diverse countries provide a better quality of life to their citizens.


In spite my cynicism, I would like to believe that the idea of India, albeit a romantic one can overcome its malfunction. How does one build resilience into a society and avoid collapse? What is the nature and property of resilience and adaptability?

Democracy and Resilience

What do the chest-thumping claims of India, the World’s largest democracy mean to the commoner anyway? Maybe I do not understand the democratic system in all its complexity, but I find that it carries an inherent paradox. How can you possibly do justice to the minority and disadvantaged groups in society, when fundamental decisions are made on the voices of the majority. The minorities will always be left out. And the majority sees it as an attack against itself when exceptions are made for minorities (e.g the highly controversial Reservations – a form of affirmative action in India)

Critics of democracy concede that it is the better evil – it’s the best we’ve got till now. India has undergone a deepening of the democratic process in the last couple of decades – is that a sign of resilience in the political system? Many regional parties have sprung up, keeping the 2 largest central parties (Congress and BJP) on their toes. (and adding to the chaos!)

Some more questions I want to explore
– How can resilience be built into systems?
– The link between pluralism, collapse and resilience. Is there one?
– Do polycentric forms of governance provide some answers?

Allen, Timothy F. H., Joseph A. Tainter, and Thomas W. Hoekstra. 1999. Supply-side sustainability.
Ostrom, Elinor. 2009. Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. Web Video. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Stockholm, December 8. 

Having been fascinated by human behaviour all my life, Systems Thinking for Sustainable Communities is opening new ways of making sense of people and the world. I had a traditional view of Systems Thinking as an analytical subject and its good to know that there might be some tools and methods that help one deal better with the ever-changing complexity in our lives.

Once stated, the basic concepts of systems thinking (the art and science of handling interdependent set of variables – c. Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems thinking: a case for second order learning) sound like common sense. How to deal with the inherent complexity of the world at a practical level is the part that I am most curious about.

Further, to refer to the paper, Systems Research and the Hierarchy of World Systems: General Systems in Special Chaos by Kenneth E. Boulding –

Equilibrium, indeed, is unknown in the real world in any strict sense, although temporary and partial equilibria are necessary for our system of perception. If our perceptions were sharp enough we would be incapable of taxonomy. Every second the whole world would look different (in fact, it is). All taxonomy, indeed, is a product of the inadequacies of human perception. How very fortunate these inadequacies are!

I am fascinated by the idea of balance in the world – of achieving a balance in the physical, sociocultural, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of all living beings in a just way. Boulding’s statement forces me to question the way I think about balance. He also points to the inadequacies of human perception as a limitation inherent in human beings. This leads me to question whether human beings can possibly create near-perfect sustainable systems when many of us would admit that we as individuals are far from perfect. I believe that this is possible when approached through systems thinking. Stewart Brand’s documentary How Buildings Learn: The Low Road leads me to believe that it carries answers to my questions.

Currently, I am having trouble formulating these abstract ideas to come down to real-world application and create impact. I am looking forward to gaining some clarity on that in the next few days.

Mridu is studying Creative Sustainability at Aalto University School of Art and Design, Helsinki (2011-13). Her primary interests are in Social Sustainability and she believes it to be an effective route to affect positive change in the other dimensions of Sustainability as well. She has concluded this from a notion of hers – that ‘it’ (problems and solutions) all begins from, and ends with people. Her previous training and experiences as a Graphic Designer proved insufficient to create meaningful change around her. Some soul-searching later, she found herself in Helsinki, trying to expand her horizons, further her imagination and to give shape to her dreams of making a difference to issues that trouble her.

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