Overview: The culture-centered processes of community organizing drawn on the case studies of community organizing in Communist Kerala and in Iwi-led Māori checkpoints in settler colonial Aotearoa New Zealand foreground the vital work of alternative practices of health response, serving as the basis for robust alternative imaginations amid the pandemic.
Q & A with Prof. Mohan Dutta by Gabriella Davila, Senior Communications Advisor, Massey University
Staff questions and answers
Professor Mohan Dutta is the Director of global research hub, Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) which relocated to Massey in 2018 from Singapore. He is also Dean’s Chair, Professor of Communication at the School of Communication, Journalism, and Marketing.
His research examines marginalisation in contemporary health/healthcare, health care inequalities, the intersections of poverty and health experiences at the margins, and the political economy of global health policies.
Mohan has received more than $6 million in funding to work on culture-centered projects of health communication, social change, and health advocacy. Working broadly on social change interventions designed to achieve the sustainable development goals Mohan has directed seven documentaries, run more than 20 360 degrees advocacy campaigns, and guided the building of various wellbeing infrastructures from irrigation systems and cultural spaces to health care systems and city design. His impact on global policy-making is evident in his advisory roles with the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
He has written and edited 10 books and more than 200 articles and book chapters. Earlier this month, he published the book, “Communication, culture and social change: Meaning, co-option, and resistance” with Palgrave MacMillan. He has previously been recognised as an Outstanding Applied/Public Policy Communication Researcher of the ICA and Outstanding Health Communication Researcher of the National Communication Association). Earlier this month he was named a Fellow of the International Communication Association
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I grew up in a middle-class family in a town called Kharagpur in West Bengal, in the eastern part of India in a family of teachers, union organisers, Left party workers, and activists. My childhood in many ways was very simple but also enriching, surrounded by people that were engaged in wanting to make change in the world.
I also grew up in what’s called in India a joint family which is quite similar to the concept of whānau in Aotearoa. We had this one house where two of my dad’s sisters and seven brothers all lived together with my grandmother who was the matriarch and played a key role in holding the family together. I was brought up with 18 cousins and it was quite beautiful in terms of this idea of a collective and a broader whānau caring for each other. This collective played a big role in terms of my own learning and support because when I got a scholarship to go study in the US, for instance, even just arranging the flight ticket didn’t just fall on my dad. My uncles and cousins all chipped in to pay for that money and that is how the broader collective is organised.
What did you like learning when you were a child?
My interests were pretty wide ranging. I loved sciences very much and I did my undergraduate degree in engineering. I really loved maths, physics, biology, and at the same time I also loved English, geography and history.
Learning happened for me inside the classroom but also outside of the classroom and I learned being on picket lines with say an uncle or being a street performer. When I was around 11 or 12, I started performing in many street plays with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and often the plays were held at protest marches. When I was growing up, India had strong spaces of resistance against The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). And those were great moments of learning because they taught you in terms of the power of a broader collective and building registers for change against the individualising logics of neoliberalism.
Can you tell us about your most inspiring teacher and why?
My eldest uncle was the headmaster of the local school and I learned a lot witnessing how transformative his impact was, certainly not just in the small little community but in the broader township where we lived and his ability to touch lives.
I had another uncle who was a maths teacher and a union organiser. Early in the mornings on the weekends, children of many different ages would come to our house or sit down with him and learn in an open space. I think that those moments taught me that teaching can be transformative, it can create pathways of mobility for others, and it can make a big difference in society.
How and when did you decide what your career would be?
After I completed my undergraduate engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), I realised I didn’t want to continue with engineering and instead I wanted to do something that had to do with human beings and connecting with them and interacting with them.
It seemed to me that in very disenfranchised communities, the challenge of wellbeing was not one of developing engineering and more technical solutions, but really a challenge of communication in terms of how to communicate and where communities can have a voice in creating policies and solutions that address their needs.
I think that interest in wanting to develop a pedagogy of voice and how those communities have a say was the turning point. I realised that my training as an agricultural engineer at an elite Indian university that produces technology leaders (many CEOs and technopreneurs across the globe are IIT graduates) was quite limited because it didn’t really teach you how to work with the communities that you wanted to develop solutions for. Communication was and is often the missing link, when you consider the challenges of poverty, health and wellbeing, clean drinking water, decent work, inequality and justice outlined by the Sustainable Development Goals.
In one sentence can you describe the purpose of your present position?
I am the Director of Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) and what we do as a collective of researchers, community organisers, activists and communities, is to develop methods of communication and radical democracy so that communities can have a voice and really, have a say in the policies and solutions that are created, and in defining the futures that they would like to live in.
How did you decide to relocate CARE to New Zealand?
CARE’swork is with very disenfranchised communities and there can sometimes be some significant challenges when working within specific authoritarian contexts such as Singapore, neo-fascist India under the Modi regime, or China. Certainly, the Center was up against some significant state pressures when working with rights of low-wage migrant workers and questions of poverty in Singapore.
After pushing against the system and the structure for six years, I was at that point thinking what could this look like if CARE was in a system that was more aligned with its values and philosophy.
We had a number of choices in terms of whether to move the research centre to the US, and whether to move to some other parts of Asia such as Hong Kong, but New Zealand was really appealing because of the confluence of the politics and the ethics of care in the country.
Do you believe that what you do changes people’s lives?
Absolutely. I want to say this with humility, that as an academic who works on communication for social change, one learns very quickly that change takes a long time. It also takes a lot of commitment, not just in terms of one’s role as an academic but I think the commitment of people and communities and other researchers and activists to make change happen.
Having said that, I think that we have a lot of evidence that what we do actually impacts lives and contributes to better outcomes of health and wellbeing. For instance, when you witness our work in rural India in very disenfranchised indigenous communities living in extreme poverty, CARE’s work has translated into building sources of clean drinking water. These communities would otherwise have to dig deep into the ground and get water through a filtering process. In those contexts, we work on developing community democracy to get access through development structures and institutions to clean drinking water.
We work with people on developing methods of advocacy and activism and this very idea of community democracy succeeds in very tangible ways. From designing development infrastructures rooted in democracy to designing hospitals, cities, and health care systems that are anchored in social justice, CARE makes real impact in people’s lives. Also, our work in communities is not episodic. Instead, these are sustained interventions developed through a commitment of a lifetime.
What do you like doing when you’re not working?
Fatherhood brings much joy and meaning in my life. Debalina [wife] and I have three children and we hang out with them, take them places and play with them. That really takes up the rest of the time outside of work. I am privileged and blessed being a father and really enjoy it.
Professor Mohan Dutta has been named a Fellow of the International Communication Association (ICA)
ICA is an international association which aims to advance the scholarly study of human communication by encouraging and facilitating excellence in academic research worldwide. Fellow status is a recognition of distinguished scholarly contributions to the broad field of communication, and is based on a documented record of scholarly achievement.
Professor Dutta, Dean’s Chair Professor and Director, Centre for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), says the honour is humbling.
Based on his work on healthcare among indigenous communities, sex workers, migrant workers, farmers, and communities living in extreme poverty, Professor Dutta has developed a framework called the culture-centred approach that outlines culturally-based participatory strategies of radical democracy for addressing unequal health policies. The culture-centered approach centres the voices of communities at the global margins.
“I see this as a recognition of the work of the culture-centered approach (CCA) in crafting out solidarities with communities at the margins in addressing entrenched injustices globally. The voices and struggles of disenfranchised communities for social justice forms the foundation of this work that our community-activist-advocate-researcher teams have been carrying out over the last two decades.
“Now more than ever, amidst racist processes of marginalisation, structural attacks on the poor, depletion of democratic spaces, challenges of climate injustice, and a pandemic that is further disenfranchising the poor and the working classes, I see the CCA as an anchor for a communicative register for care and equality across global struggles at/of the margins,” he says.
Professor Dutta has received over $6 million in funding to work on culture-centered projects of health communication, social change, and health advocacy. Professor Dutta has directed seven documentaries, run over twenty advocacy interventions, and guided the building of various wellbeing infrastructures from irrigation systems to health care systems. He has written and edited ten books and over 200 articles and book chapters. He has previously been recognised as an Outstanding Applied/Public Policy Communication Researcher of the ICA and Outstanding Health Communication Researcher of the National Communication Association (NCA).
Professor Dutta will travel to the United States to receive a plaque during the ICA presidential awards ceremony in May 2021.
CARE Director Professor Mohan Dutta participated in a call-in conversation, “Are we racist?” with Jacinta Parsons at ABC Radio Australia, discussing Black Lives Matter, racism, Whiteness, and the colonizing project.
“As tensions around race and racism boil over in America is it time for Australians to look closer to home?
Prof Mohan Dutta is Director of the Centre for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) at New Zealand’s Massey University and he joins Jacinta Parsons and her listeners for a frank and illuminating discussion.
Duration: 24min 43sec Broadcast: Wed 3 Jun 2020, 12:30pm”
About the event: “#EndTheHate” is a campaign co-created
by a community of indigenous, migrant, and refugees in Aotearoa New Zealand. In
solidarity with the voices of #BlackLivesMatter activists across the globe, we
welcome you to this performative reading on racism, police violence,
incarceration, and Whiteness. Through this co-creative reading, we hope to
build a discursive register for voices that seek to dismantle the racist
structures of White supremacy. Please join with essays, poems, stories as we
create together registers for dismantling Whiteness.
Communication Inequalities and Discursive Erasures: The Fate of Migrant Labour during the COVID-19 Crisis in India by Prof. Mohan Dutta, School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University, New Zealand Monday, June 01, 2020 / 12:00 PM
Abstract: COVID19 makes visible the deep inequalities that are written into the extremely neoliberal cities of the twenty-first century. The imaginaries of “smart” “future” and “digital” that punctuate the propaganda infrastructures of postcolonial urbanism are disrupted by narrative accounts of lived struggles with sustenance and survival at the subaltern margins. In this talk, drawing on my ongoing ethnographic work with the subaltern margins of urban India, and more specifically from in-depth interviews conducted with low-wage migrant workers expelled into the highways of death amidst the lockdown, I will theorize the normalization of hyper-precarity, discardability and death of the poor into the neoliberal propaganda infrastructure. Finally, drawing on the culture-centered approach, I will theorize the possibilities of a Left radical imaginary anchored in organizing hyper-precarious workers.
Mohan J Dutta is Dean’s Chair Professor of Communication. He is the Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), developing culturally-centered, community-based projects of social change, advocacy, and activism that articulate health as a human right. Mohan Dutta’s research examines the role of advocacy and activism in challenging marginalizing structures, the relationship between poverty and health, political economy of global health policies, the mobilization of cultural tropes for the justification of neo-colonial health development projects, and the ways in which participatory culture-centered processes and strategies of radical democracy serve as axes of global social change.
This year at ICA 2020 – 70th Annual Conference, #CAREMassey has 21 (approximately) papers/panels/presentations slotted. This is a great achievement for CARE which is made possible by the contributions of CARE’s hard working staff and dedicated researchers all across the globe, who have worked collectively to achieve this brilliance. Here are some of the paper presentations at this year’s ongoing 70th ICA Virtual Conference.
CARE is proud to share that our social impact in the communication field further complemented by the theoretical and empirical impact. This year at ICA 2020- 70th Annual Conference, CARE has 21 (approximately)papers/panels/presentations slotted. This is a great achievement for CARE which is made possible by the the contributions of CARE’s hard working staff and dedicated researchers all across the globe who have worked collectively to achieve this brilliance.
CARE would like to congratulate and wish you the best for the upcoming ICA Conference in May 2020.
New Frontiers of the Culture-Centered Approach: Interventions Disrupting Structures. Chairs(s): Christine Elers (Massey University) and Pooja Jayan (University) Discussant(s): Mohan Jyoti Dutta (University)
Culturally Centering Indigenous Voice Christine Elers; Mohan Jyoti Dutta; Pooja Jayan; Phoebe Elers; Terri Te Tau
The Culture-Centered Approach for Voice Infrastructures: The Poverty Is Not Our Future Campaign Steve Elers; Phoebe Elers; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
A Culture-Centered Approach to Health Intervention Amid Farmer Suicides in India Ashwini Falnikar; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Navigating Health in Low Income Suburban Sites: A Cultured-Centered Project in Aotearoa New Zealand Phoebe Elers; Terri Te Tau; Mohan Jyoti Dutta; Steve Elers; Pooja Jayan
Meanings of Health Among Migrant Indian Nurses in New Zealand Pooja Jayan; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Digital Media, Racist Networks of Hate, and Power Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Decolonizing Epistemicide: When Subaltern Communities Own Knowledge Production Infrastructures Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Land, Space and the Constitution of Poverty in Suburban Aotearoa New Zealand Phoebe Elers; Mohan Jyoti Dutta; Steve Elers
Health Misinformation: A Global Threat Chairs(s): Mohan Jyoti Dutta (Massey University)
A Culture-Centered Approach to Health Intervention Amid Farmer Suicides in India Ashwini Falnikar; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
A Community-Based Heart Health Intervention: Culture-Centered Study of Low-Income Malays and Heart Health Practices Satveer Kaur; Mohan Jyoti Dutta; Munirah Bashir
Meanings of Health Among Migrant Indian Nurses in New Zealand Pooja Jayan; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Theorising Māori Health and Wellbeing: Voices From the Margins Christine Elers; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Hindutva 2.0, Digital Transformation and the Re-Imagined Nation Bipin Sebastian; Mohan Jyoti Dutta
Since mid-March, Asadul Alam Asif has watched nervously as Singapore reported more and more COVID-19 cases in migrant workers’ dormitories like the one where he lives.
The 28-year-old Bangladeshi technician counted himself lucky each day that nobody was infected in his housing block, where around 1,900 workers reside in cramped conditions that make social distancing impossible. To relieve congestion, Asif’s company rehoused some people, which left half of the 16 bunk-beds in his small room empty.
But then, one day last week, seven people in Asif’s dorm tested positive.
He received a text message instructing all residents on the fifth and sixth floors—including him—not to leave their rooms.
“All of us slept very late that night, like 1 or 2 a.m.,” he told TIME by phone. “We were all so worried.”
Asif is one of the more than 200,000 foreign workers living in Singapore’s dormitories, where often 10 to 20 men are packed into a single room. Built to house the workers who power the construction, cleaning and other key industries, these utilitarian complexes on the city-state’s periphery have become hives of infection, revealing a blind spot in Singapore’s previously vaunted coronavirus response.
“The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode,” Singapore lawyer Tommy Koh wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post earlier this month. “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World.”
As the coronavirus continues its insidious spread, Singapore’s outbreak suggests the danger of overlooking any population. Even when containment efforts appear to succeed in flattening the curve, keeping it that way remains a difficult, relentless endeavor.
“If we forget marginalized communities, if we forget the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated… we are going to continue to see outbreaks,” says Gavin Yamey, Associate Director for Policy at the Duke Global Health Institute. “This will continue to fuel our epidemic.”
The world’s estimated 164 million migrant laborers are particularly vulnerable both to the disease and to its economic fallout. Their risk of infection is compounded by factors like overcrowded living quarters, hazardous working conditions, low pay and often limited access to social protections.
“Migrants are likely to be the hardest hit,” says Cristina Rapone, a rural employment and migration specialist at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
For undocumented workers, the threat of the virus is even higher. “They might not seek healthcare because they may risk being deported,” Rapone says.
In the Gulf, a wealthy region dependent upon blue collar labor from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, the virus has also ripped through migrant worker housing. Figures from Kuwait, the U.A.E. and Bahrain suggest the majority of cases have been among foreigners, many of whom live in unsanitary work camps, the Guardian reports.
Migrant workers with insecure, informal or seasonal jobs also tend to be among the first to be let go in a crisis. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hastily announced an impending nationwide lockdown in March, hundreds of thousands of internal migrant workers suddenly found themselves unemployed and homeless, forced to flee the cities en masse. The arduous journeys back to their villages—some reportedly walking as much as 500 miles—were made worse by the stigma of being seen as both patients and carriers of the virus.
“There is increasing risk that migrants returning to rural areas face discrimination and stigmatization, because they are said to be carrying or spreading the virus,” says Rapone. FAO staff in Asia and Latin America have reported such cases, she adds.
Yet the spread of the coronavirus has also revealed just how much of the “essential work” depends on migrants, from the medical sector to deliveries to the global food supply.
In the U.S., about half of the farm workers are undocumented immigrants, according to the Department of Agriculture. Classified as essential workers, they continue to toil in fields, orchards and packing plants across the nation, even as much of the economy is shut down. Limited access to healthcare, cramped living and working conditions, and even a reported lack of soap on some farms can put them at high risk of contracting the virus.
“Globally, we’re very dependent on migrants to fill up jobs that are absolutely essential to sustain our economies,” says Mohan Dutta, a professor who studies the intersection of poverty and health at Massey University in New Zealand. He adds that health authorities need to do more to protect them.
A ‘hidden backbone’
Singapore’s outbreak highlights what can happen if some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable people in society go unnoticed during the health crisis. After reporting single-digit daily caseloads in February, the island nation of 5.6 million now has the highest number of reported COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia.
This month, cases began surging past 1,000 per day, and almost all the patients were migrant workers.
“The government was really focused on fighting COVID-19 on two battlefronts: community transmission and imported cases,” says Jeremy Lim, co-director of global health at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. “But it overlooked the vulnerabilities of this third front that’s now glaringly obvious to everyone.”
Singapore’s 1.4 million foreign workers make up about one-third of the country’s total workforce, according to government figures. Most of the low-wage workers are from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and other countries.
Advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) calls them the “hidden backbone” of Singapore society.
“Everything you see as development, [like] the building sector, the marine sector—all this depends very, very much on migrant workers,” says Christine Pelly, an Executive Committee member of TWC2. “Their contribution permeates throughout society in a very necessary and essential way.”
Migrant workers, Dutta adds, are an invisible community in Singapore. Their dormitories are located on the outskirts of the city and on their rest days, they congregate in districts like Little India and Chinatown, where ethnic food shops and money remittances are located. Due to fear of losing their jobs, many do not complain about their living and working conditions.
“Not only are they unseen, but their voices are also unheard,” says Dutta.
TWC2 says it has spent years trying to call the government’s attention to the cramped and dirty dormitory conditions that now pose a grave public health threat. Government regulations stipulate that each occupant be allotted 4.5 square meters (about 48 square feet) of living space, meaning that rooms for 20 people can be as small as 960 square feet, while facilities like bathrooms, kitchens and common rooms are shared.
Some dorms now have hundreds of cases. One of them, the sprawling S11 complex, has over 2,200. Nizam, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi, moved out of S11 after his roommate tested positive earlier this month. He was transferred to a quarantine center.
“One hundred and seventy people share [a] common washroom, kitchen and the room where we eat,” the construction worker says. “Everything is shared. That’s why the virus is spreading like that.”
Besides the dormitories, rights groups have also sounded the alarm on the trucks that ferry migrants to and from work in the gleaming city center. Workers, usually about a dozen or more, are typically packed shoulder to shoulder in the open backs of lorries.
Singapore is scrambling to neutralize the ballooning crisis by locking down the dorms and trying to space out residents.
“This is Singapore’s largest humanitarian public health crisis ever. So the logistics of moving thousands of people, feeding and separating them is not at all straightforward,” says Lim, who also volunteers to help migrant workers.
Around 10,000 workers have been moved out of their dormitories and into vacant housing blocks and military camps. Medical personnel have been stationed at dorms to carry out “aggressive testing,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an April 21 address.
Dormitory residents have been instructed to stop working. The government has said employers must continue to pay their migrant workers during that period, and that testing and treatment will be free.
While workers are being provided three meals a day and free wifi, they are completely dependent on handouts. Workers TIME spoke with say they have not been allowed to leave their dorms, not even to buy groceries or other necessities.
Their treatment also contrasts with the four and five-star hotels that the government has paid to house Singaporeans returning from overseas, fueling criticism of further inequities.
A warning from Singapore
As migrant workers endure the brunt of Singapore’s outbreak, observers say the situation should serve as a reminder for other countries to pay attention to vulnerable residents, especially those for whom social distancing is a luxury.
“They need to be spread out, but they also need to have access to basic infrastructures like ventilation, clean toilets, adequate supply of water, adequate cleaning supplies,” says Dutta, the New Zealand professor.
Seeking to blunt the economic repercussions of the pandemic, many countries are now rushing to restart their economies. Several states in the U.S. have started reopening this week, while in Germany and France schools and businesses are making plans to resume.
But Dutta cautioned against loosening restrictions before ensuring vulnerable groups have access to basic sanitation and decent accommodation. Infections among marginalized communities, if not properly contained, could increase the risk for the entire population, he warns.
“Inequalities are the breeding grounds for pandemics,” he says. “Countries absolutely have to learn [from Singapore] before it’s too late.”