Bookmakers, compulsive gamblers, prostitutes and incredibly rich Indians were last year part of PhD Stine Simonsen Puri’s daily entourage. For half a year, the researcher from the University of Copenhagen spent most of her waking hours at the New Delhi racecourse, where she did field work for her PhD dissertation. The dissertation provides insights into the major illicit Indian economy, which many Indians rely more on than the legal one – but which we do not hear much about in the West.
- I have studied the legal and illegal financial transactions that take place every day at the racecourse in New Delhi. Approximately 4,000 people visit the races daily, and they bet everything between 25 cent and 20.000 $ in a race. But often, the really large bets are placed outside the established system to avoid taxation, providing the foundation for a large, illegal economy, Stine Simonsen Puri explains.
In her thesis "Speculation in Fixed Futures. An Ethnography of Betting in between Legal and Illegal Economies at the Delhi Racecourse", which she recently defended at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, she studies, among other things, the handling of money and morality in a society like the Indian that is characterized by both tradition and modernity.
In India, horse betting is immensely popular. This is from the racecourse in Mumbai. Photo: Stine Simonsen Puri
- In the Western world, we hear a lot about the growing Indian economy, but we don’t know much about it. When we think about economy, we tend to think of it as something that exists within state authority. But that is not how it works in India. Much of the Indian economy takes place beyond the legal system, Stine Simonsen Puri says. She adds:
- In my thesis, I focus on the information networks and alliances that arise in a society with very little trust in the "system" – as well as on the illegal, financial transactions that grow out of this distrust. In India, the legal and the illegal economies work parallel to each other, and in many cases you choose the illegal economy over the legal one, because it is at times considered more reliable. Everything that we normally associate with the legal economy, such as credibility and transparency, is connected to the illegal economy in India – and vice versa.
You don’t have to know about horses
One of Stine Simonsen Puris conclusions is that you bet as much on the people surrounding and tending the horses as on the horses themselves.
- The belief at the racecourse is that the races must be fixed and predetermined when so much money is at stake. Usually when you place bets, you assess the horses, but betting in Delhi works differently. Betters observe what people are betting and the bookies even use binoculars to follow the whereabouts and the bets of certain gamblers whom they know play for powerful and rich men: If the men place a lot of money on a particular horse, the bookies assume that it is because they know that the horse will win and they adjust the odds acordingly. Everything surrounding the races is based on the assumption that someone has the power to control the game, says Stine Simonsen Puri and puts this into perspective:
- This resembles the attitude the Indians generally have towards politics and the Indian political-economic system. They suspect that any political decision is based on power and on someone trying to feather his or her own nest or someone they know. In my thesis, with the racecourse as case, I investigate the Indian idea of the future being predetermined, scripted and theatre-like.
Focus on stories from the margin
The thesis provides insight into a relatively unknown part of the Indian economy, but it also tells us about a marginal area that we don’t necessarily hear about in the news.
- The stories from the margin are often extremely interesting because they focus on things that are not otherwise present in the media. But they add an important piece to the overall story of India. The thesis also shows that financial speculation exists beyond Wall Street. It is interesting to encounter illegal speculative markets and to look at the many ways in which they can exist, Stine Simonsen Puri says.