TCS Daily

The Goddess of Small Ideas

By V. Santhakumar - January 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Reading Arundhati Roy's speech at the World Social Forum, reproduced in The Hindu, gave me a few uneasy moments. Why was I perturbed even momentarily by such exciting prose? The truth is that I am a "comprador consultant" looking forward to a contract from the long chain of subcontracting headed by Bechtel in Iraq. I am also looking out for a job for my brother in a Kuwaiti firm that sells chicken curry to U.S. soldiers. As an "ordinary" citizen, I complain when rubber prices fall due to imports, want to allow exports when international prices go up, and look forward to the new pay commission for a sizeable increase in my salary but complain about the tardiness and high pay of the employees of electricity board.

Arundhati Roy has heard the whispers going around that there are benefits to be had from "American imperialism" and quite clearly hears them getting louder. Those who spoke in hushed tones -- the ignorant and mindless -- include not only millions who resisted the careful nurturing of the Stalinist world, but also the women of Afghanistan, the Kurds of Iraq, the people of the Balkans, and others in different parts of the world who depend on the huge economic machine of the USA. They now say that "imperialist overtures" have also led to the reduction of killings in Sudan, cautioned the Tigers in Sri Lanka, and encouraged the chief executives of India and Pakistan to meet. There is an urgent need to stop these whispers from becoming a din. People need to be told that the Americans are in Iraq to steal their oil without paying any price. Let us hope that they will not remember the nature of "socially beneficial" use to which Saddam Hussein put Iraq's oil.

There is an urgent need to stop markets from expanding. Indians who work for $5 a day should not be allowed to take away jobs that would fetch an American $100 a day. The worker brothers of America -- and the supporters of the World Social Forum -- need to be protected. Cheap Chinese goods should be prevented from flooding the American and Indian markets. Beware of the Chinese. When all others were in the streets of Seattle they were in the boardrooms of the WTO negotiating. Clearly they cannot be relied upon. They are capable of signing speeches prepared by Indian ministers in Cancun and at the same time making secret deals with the US. In fact many of our respected comrades of the G22, including Brazil (the home of the WSF), who made Cancun a success for Indian NGOs and media-oriented Indian negotiators, cannot be relied upon. They might sign bilateral treaties for convenience even as we are making hard-hitting speeches about how Indians could lead the war against trade imperialists.

After all, the urge to expand markets is an imperialist plot. How wonderful the world (including Roy's and my small world in Kerala) would have been if the Romans had not been interested in pepper, if those interfering missionaries had not started schools and the British who set up plantations in 19th century were not interested in hiring Malayalee supervisors. Little Kerala would have been unsullied if those colonialists had not brought those foreign plants rubber, tapioca, coffee, tea, chilly and cashew. There would have been much more happiness all around if during the last 50 years there had been no exports of shrimp and migration of scores of Malayalee men and women from Kerala to the deserts of Arabia and elsewhere. How terrible for the Malayalee nurses to be found in the remotest corners of the world! The urge for capital accumulation encourages millions of Keralites to collude with imperialism the world over. You can see them all around, and in most unexpected circumstances.

For someone who practices (passionately) the much-maligned science of neoclassical economics, and confronts the nitty-gritty issues of governance as a colluding consultant, there are many disturbing questions latent in Roy's bewitching prose. Is it not true that a majority of the Muslim people (especially their women) in Kashmir, Palestine, and Pakistan are unable to aspire for a better life due to the work of a small group of fundamentalists? Are the struggles of men and women in societies trapped or affected by terrorism not a concern for social forum? Is it mere coincidence that the people responsible for killing Muslims in India, which she indirectly attributes to US imperialism, speak in the same tones as Roy and the left parties about globalization? Do you feel unhappy that the Americans do not go after Modi and Togadia and only Saddam?

Didn't our proud Non-Aligned Movement tradition include support to some regimes that were oppressive of their own people? Didn't these governments following the "proud tradition" also cause some of the worst displacements of their own people in the name of development without adequate compensation? Why have the beneficiaries of the state interventions in the past (which the neo-liberals criticize) become adversaries of dalits (oppressed lower caste groups) and tribals? Why do they work against the reorientation of governmental support to these marginal but electorally powerless sections? Isn't there a structural problem in which one section of society which gains from a state intervention like free supply of electricity (which Roy seems to support) demands displacement of other sections (such as tribals) in the name of more subsidized water supply? Isn't it troubling Roy that the political patronage of the organized working class who are but 10 percent of the population in this country work against the interests of 80 percent who either work in unorganized sector or unemployed? A tête à tête with fellow Keralites, among the thousands job-hunting in Delhi, would reveal the darker sides of the clout of the organized working class and the tyranny of their strikes.

Roy seems to be worried about a few gaining and many others losing in their struggle to be part of global market. She may not be interested in poverty statistics that clearly show the number of people living in absolute poverty has come down drastically What would have been the situation if India, growing at the Hindu-rate, were not participating actively in the global economy? Those with privileges (based on family, caste, political power, and so on) would obviously get ahead. But aren't there millions of Indians today who have been able to make significant improvements in their lives, without having any of these privileges? Aren't the romantic versions of the past and the state-centered development biased in favor of those with these privileges?

There are troubling questions galore. Could concerned social activism (including UN resolutions) have any impact on the gross violations of human rights by the repressive regimes of the world, including the Taliban and Saddam? Or elsewhere in Bosnia, Libya, North Korea? On the other hand, isn't it true that economic sanctions, punitive strikes and the internal urge to reap the benefits of economic integration have made or have been making a number of regimes more concerned about the rights of their own citizens?

Regarding the WTO, there is a question that needs to be asked: When would a powerful actor gain more: in a state of lawlessness, or in a legal regime where almost all the actors have some voice? The powerful player can gain more when WTO is not in place or through bilateral deals in which less powerful partners can be coerced into contracts. Why should the US take the trouble of coercing a reluctant India to accept WTO agreements, which any way take so much effort to arrive at, when it can get most of the markets and products through bilateral agreements with countries that are more than willing to negotiate? This is especially so if we believe these anti-globalization activists who attribute so much power to this imperialist state. Why should one country reduce the tariff of products from another country, if the latter is unwilling to enter into a bilateral treaty with the former, and if it is not in its interests? Is an India outside the WTO any better for its people than one that is part of the global trade regime? If certain issues are taken out of WTO negotiations, what are better and more effective fora to negotiate such issues? These questions may seem esoteric to many at the WSF, but are very important to any importer, exporter and supplier of services or skills to the global market, and there are many Indians among the latter. Indian ministers trying to address Indian media and sooth anti-global sloganeers aim at cheap popularity, failing to do their homework and wasting precious national time, and resources. A lesson from Cancun is that we could do with some tutorials from across the border with China. A working and effective WTO is more important for poorer countries.

Roy seems to support an electricity subsidy. This is an area where I have some experience, as a colluding consultant, of ground realities. Is she aware that nearly 40 percent of Indian households do not have electricity connections? Considering all estimates of poverty in India, and also the established relationship between income and the access to electricity connections, it is not difficult to see that the majority of poor do not have connections. Who then gets all the subsidized power in India? The answer is the middle class. The higher the income level of the middle class, the greater the subsidy. This is also true for farmers, because, the bigger the landholding, the more the subsidy.

As I said these questions made me uneasy. But then it became clear that one does not have to worry too much about the noise from Roy or the WSF. One may take comfort that the proponents of anti-globalization behave more rationally and logically when it comes to issues that matter to them personally. Rational behavior is visible not only in Lula or Nelson Mandela once they come to power. It is there also in my own backyard where firebrand left-leaders ensure that their daughters and sons have access to courses in information technology in self-financing colleges, which they otherwise oppose by tooth and nail. Filling up US visa applications for their children in the forenoon and making anti-globalization speeches in the evenings are acceptable practices of the left intellectuals in Kerala. It is the same logic that dictates that the WSF organizers use Arundhati Roy and not a Medha Patkar or an M.P. Parameswaran to "maximize" media coverage.

The author is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvanathapuram. The opinions expressed here are his own and not of the Centre.


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