The Reasoned Review

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Capitalism in India

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Walking down an Indian thoroughfare in 2009 will strike anyone with previous experience of the country — something has changed. It isn’t so much the visible poverty, the pollution, or the surging, unceasing crowds; having grown, they still resemble their 1990s counterparts. Nor should the lawless traffic, the variety of vehicles, or the belches of black smoke they exude come as very much of a surprise. The rickshaws have multiplied, the cities sprawl, the population grows by, oh, 50,000 per day, but this is all very much as it has been. But one can now buy from any major US or European business; and therein lies the difference.

At the screening of a film on climate change, an audience member remarked, “Three years ago, in Hyderabad, there wasn’t a single shopping mall. Now there are eight on Banjara Hills Road alone. The city probably has twenty by now.” And so it does; great glittering concrete towers dot the dusty roads advertising McDonalds, Adidas, Gucci, and a hundred other brands.  Naomi Klein, in her excellent No Logo, attested that “the most successful corporations don’t sell products. They sell brands.” By that standard the Euro-American conglomerates who have wormed their way to the subcontinent have seen wide success indeed.

Wearing Reebok shoes, owning a Ford automobile, sporting Levi’s and sipping your Coke blares a clear message to the unwashed Indian masses: “I am not one of you. I have made it.” It is undeniable that association with western brands immediately elevates one, sets one apart from the teeming peasants below. They, after all, must wear no-name brands, and many consider themselves lucky to own one set of clothes. Living side by side as they do, the rich and poor occupy wholly different worlds, each as alien to the other as it would be to the moon.

An outgrowth of Indian capitalism which seems to be on everyone’s lips these days is the dreaded mining mafia. Consisting of large mineral firms and small scavenger operations, this interest group acts wholly outside Indian law, though nearly every lawmaker is in on the deal. Their power stems from the vaunted “deregulation” India underwent in the 1990s. The Indian Government  sold its mining operations then to private corporations at ridiculously low rates. These companies turned around and began exploiting their newly acquired resources at fantastic profit. Many of these mines lie on ‘tribal areas’ – undeveloped forests where dwindling communities carry out a traditional, pre-industrial lifestyle. With their new lease on ‘development’, the mining conglomerates began brutally clearing forests and villages, eager for the valuable minerals below. The villagers organized and fought back in an attempt to preserve their homes, at which point India began its notorious “Operation Green Hunt“, a devastating offensive using modern weaponry on landless farmers, much in the manner of America in Pakistan. Here, too, government acts only in the interest of the wealthy.

A typical report from Operation Green Hunt:

Gachanpalli is a small village some 30 km from the town of Konta in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. According to witnesses, the security forces raided Gachanpalli sometime in late October. They allegedly killed Madvi Admaya, Madkam Sulaya, Madvi Joga, Kovasi Gangaya, Madkam Moiyi. Witnesses say four of the five men were past 60 and too old to escape into the jungle. Madkam Moiyi was apparently crippled and incapable of walking. They were said to have been bayoneted and shot to death in the middle of the village.

Or take, for instance, the actions of Coca-Cola, a brand much beloved in India, whose customers number in the tens of millions:

Tests conducted by a variety of agencies, including the government of India, confirmed that Coca-Cola products contained high levels of pesticides, and as a result, the Parliament of India has banned the sale of Coca-Cola in its cafeteria. However, Coca-Cola not only continues to sell drinks laced with poisons in India (that could never be sold in the US and EU), it is also introducing new products in the Indian market. And as if selling drinks with DDT and other pesticides to Indians was not enough, one of Coca-Cola’s latest bottling facilities to open in India, in Ballia, is located in an area with a severe contamination of arsenic in its groundwater.

One could multiply such examples. The corruption here would shock and disgust anyone used to its coy western counterpart. It is not uncommon for high-ranking officials to retire with tens of millions of dollars in bribes. India’s graft bears striking resemblance to “campaign donations” in the US, but it remains much more powerful, and impossibly more open. In India, enough money can induce the government to overlook anything.

This is a land of beggars and billionaires, where a single person could eliminate hunger, child labor, and slavery if he chose. “Some people in this country have trillions of rupees!” a friend of mine remarked, “They could feed every homeless man here, for generations! Why don’t they?” I admit I could not answer, but if pressed I would say: “Because the poor are invisible in this country.” How many times one sees a well-dressed young man avert his eyes to a destitute on the street! How often one hears a wealthy businessman arguing with a cab driver over what amounts to a few cents! India has finally imbibed that spirit of the free market (“make as much money as you can, and screw everyone else”). Thus, no one pays much attention to the plight of the poor in India. “They’ll get on as they always have, why should I share with them?” seems the overriding sentiment.

In many ways, perhaps more than can be counted here, India mirrors America of the early 20th century. As then, one sees now in India a burgeoning middle class, a vast nouveau riche who can live like kings for the first time. Again, one sees the same disregard for environmentalism or even basic cleanliness, typified by India’s refusal to cut carbon emissions, but truly brought home by the clouds of car exhaust that permeate every major city and the rotting piles of refuse on every street corner. America in the 1950s, before the Clean Air and Water Acts, was incomparably dirty, where open sewage flowed into rivers, where one car in twenty had a catalytic converter, where factories and power plants blew their unfiltered smoke into the shifting winds. Before President Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation, the American ghettos were a terrible blight upon their cities, the chasm between rich and poor yawned wide, and one could still encounter open starvation on the streets. Just as one can in India today.

India resembles a spacecraft entering a black hole. As it crosses the event horizon, the front of the craft accelerates faster than the rear, causing it to stretch (theoretically) to an infinite length. The rich in India have become unimaginably richer in the past two decades, while the poor have seen no such gains. Much as the Rockefellers and Morgans of old, the Ambanis and Tatas of today’s India race ahead, amassing billions and trillions of rupees, while the rest of the country makes do with mere thousands. Just as in America, this is ceasing to present a problem. No longer do large sums of money taint one as corrupt, a thief – on the contrary, many young Indians today thirst for the chance to become the next Ambani, to make the next billion. It has become a national obsession, if such a thing can be said to exist.

One need look no further than the legion of “computer science” students choking the halls of every Indian university for evidence. The students I have spoken with give no particular reason as to why they should choose computer science; in fact, they invariably betray a strong distaste for the subject, but it is the easiest way to get a job and the surest way to find a place in America, so students flock to those programs by the million.

And so it goes, the steady, unyielding rhythms of India of old making way for the hyper-consumerist capitalism of New India. Yet more than one half of the country has been left behind. More than 500 million have no regular food supplies, no access to clean water. 400 million are illiterate. Today, the population mired in poverty is greater than the entire population of India in 1947, at independence.

But what grand eloquence we hear on India’s so-called “development”!

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