A central pathology of modern India is best captured in the deep crisis of the professions. The major professions of modernity — medicine, law, accountancy, teaching, academia, journalism, bureaucracy — all appear to be in disarray. These professions are the linchpin of a modern society. They play a central role in governance and regulation. They are the source of new norms and identities. Both states and markets depend on them. They are the sites through which knowledge is institutionalised. They are supposed to be governed by norms appropriate to the knowledge function they perform. The professions define middle class aspiration and are the structures through which the middle class exercises hegemony. Yet, these are the biggest sites of discontent.
It is not an accident that one of the most talked about pieces of writing last week was an anguished cry by a doctor, Roshan Radhakrishnan, explaining why he would have his child be anything but a doctor in India. Although written in a personal tone, the underlying points exposed the dark underbelly of professional life in India. The first complaint was personal: modern professional routines simply do not allow the right work-life balance; they now extract a personal toll. There is a curious paradox here. The post-liberalisation middle class was reared on the ideological conviction that labour regulation is bad. But many even in privileged professions now find themselves victims of unsustainable work schedules. From lawyers to doctors to bankers, there is a sense among many that they may have found a profession, but they have given up on life. The issue is not about working hard. It is that middle class professionals have no way of articulating the fact that they are now in structural positions where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Although the circumstances are different, they wished this reality away with respect to labour. Now they are left with no ground to articulate a critique of the conditions of overwork they find themselves in.
The second thread of the angst is the widespread disparity within the professions. The doctor was, in a sense, concerned with the disparity in pay between public and private doctors. The same disparity exists across the board, except possibly in teaching, where public salaries can be competitive. But there is such a wide dispersal of incomes within a profession that it begins to call into question the idea of a profession itself. One of the reasons professional norms are so weakly institutionalised is internal disparity. Public recognition and income in many professions are concentrated in the hands of a few, while a large mass labour under uncertain prospects. This has shifted the balance of power in the professional bodies that set the norms. These bodies, from the Bar Council to the Medical Council of India, will usually exhibit a defensive politics of resentment. Their function is not to solidify professional identities; it is to compensate those who are left behind by enormous concentrations of institutional power in the hands of a few.
The third element is the crisis of public esteem. Doctors are indispensable, and individual doctors are respected. If you are particularly cursed, even an individual lawyer might become indispensable and helpful. But public suspicion of these professions has grown enormously. Even if individual doctors are admired, the sense that going to a doctor is opening yourself up to exploitation is more marked now. Radhakrishnan charts the ways in which doctors are objects of violence. Some of it comes from the frustration that doctors cannot solve all problems. But some of it comes from the fact that these professions are picked out as being responsible for failing systems, whether it is hospitals or courts of law. Individual achievement or service cannot compensate for falling collective credibility.
The fourth element of this crisis is the inability or unwillingness of professionals to orient their institutions towards professional norms. In the government systems, professionals are increasingly crowded out by the imprisoning logic of bureaucracy. In private systems, profit motives continually put professional integrity on the line. Professionals feel disempowered between the logic of the bureaucracy and the logic of the market, which have colonised the core meaning of professions. It should, for example, be a scandal that hospitals set revenue targets for doctors. Society does not grudge professions their income. It increasingly grudges the pervasive conflicts of interest that are now so deeply institutionalised that all professions seem compromised at their core.
The fifth element of this crisis is the breakdown of self-regulation. By their very nature, these professions need to be self-regulated, or they will be subject to external norms that undermine their meaning. But self-regulation of the sort that can signal credibility is strikingly absent. India’s middle classes are seen to have betrayed their historical vocation by their inability to credibly institutionalise the one thing they are supposed to be good at: the professions. The advantage of the professions was to provide a new kind of motivation. Professions do not require self-sacrifice. But neither do they ideally require the relentlessness of profit. They are supposed to marry knowledge to meaningful outcomes. The interesting question is how many professionals think of their professions as exemplars in this way. In some ways, diminution of professional esteem is directly related to reliability of training. But again, in a failing system of higher education, the poorly trained will crowd out the reputation of the good.
There are deep causes behind this crisis in the professions: from politicisation to a failure of middle class thinking. But this deepening crisis will have profound repercussions. It also paints a dispiriting view of the prospects of modernity. In modernity’s own narrative, professions are not just attractive jobs. When we talk of an aspirational revolution, we can mean two different things. We can mean aspiration defined through consumption. We can also mean an aspiration to participate in new vocations, which don’t just generate wealth, but are also a source of new identity and meaning. A country where professionals feel disempowered or compromised is looking at a bleak future.
The state of professions is also a good place to understand the ambiguous location of modern India’s middle class. These professions are the source of its hegemony; its putative claim to privilege rests on doing these jobs right. But if there is a deepening crisis of confidence in the professions, the middle class, like the crony capitalists, will also be challenged.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’