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In Session: Technology and the Everyday across Post-War Asia
2: Measuring the Everyday: Sample Surveys and Household Industries in 1950s India
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
University of Notre Dame, United States
In the decade following decolonization and independence in 1947, India witnessed an explosion of national statistics—in large measure due to the efforts of Calcutta’s Indian Statistical Institute. These years saw the establishment of an unprecedented national statistical infrastructure; the most important piece of which was the pioneering bi-annual National Sample Survey (NSS). As this paper will show, the NSS became the defining means of measuring of the nation’s everyday economy. Tracking the economy from bottom up—based on thousands of in-person interviews by survey investigators—the NSS provided the state unprecedented insight into Indians’ everyday material lives. A government committed to centralized planning could now even estimate how much a rural family spent on spices every month.
As these surveys kicked into gear, the Indian Statistical Institute also spawned an experiment in everyday economics. Begun in 1956 and named Kalyanashree, it was a small center on the Institute’s campus employing Bengali women in cottage industries. Its purpose was to determine, under monitored experimental conditions, what role the everyday technologies of household industry could play in absorbing unemployed labor. Despite the heavy industry and mega-project bias of Indian planners in the 1950s, the possibilities of everyday household technology retained an interest. Using the private papers of planners, and institutional records of the Indian Statistical Institute, this paper will explore these two articulations of technocrats’ and planners’ interest in the everyday economy of mid twentieth century India.