Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Social Commentary’ Category

The agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda

In Media, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Earlier this week at a public meeting in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal urged his supporters to celebrate Dussehra by burning the effigies not of the mythical demons, but of today’s demons – corrupt politicians. “I leave it to you to select which corrupt politician will be your Ravana, and which ones your Kumbhakarna and your Meghnad,” he told a cheering audience.

This facile personification of an abstraction (corruption) and its emotive linkage to a religious symbol (burning the effigies of the righteous Rama’s enemies) encapsulates the essential character of the anti-corruption movement that now aspires to be a “political alternative.”

Arvind Kejriwal and his band of activists are going to launch a political party. But is anti-corruption enough of a platform to launch a whole new political party? What constituency do they really represent? How does one understand Team Kejriwal’s leap into parliamentary politics? While I do not question their individual good intentions, their singular obsession with corruption and their reluctance to engage with the structural issues that make corruption widespread, if not necessary, are worth pondering.

Who does Team Kejriwal represent?
The past 20 years of liberalisation have put more money into the hands of India’s middle classes. Their economic empowerment has given them a new sense of political entitlement, but not political empowerment.

Unlike the economy, Indian politics has continued on its pre-liberalisation track. A small dynastic coterie calls the shots in all the mainstream parties. The pre-modern institutions of caste, religion and family still count for more than capability or integrity or leadership. As a result, the onward (and upward) economic march of the middle classes has been held to ransom by the regressive feudal politics of a tiny elite that has basically gamed the system.

From a Marxist perspective, the rise of the anti-corruption brigade can be read as a manifestation of the power struggle between two different factions of the ruling class – the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. The former are in command now, their financial power having secured them political control over the state machinery and party functionaries, from the PMO downward. Vedanta’s grip over the state administration in Orissa is a telling example.

The petty bourgeoisie, or the educated urban middle classes, possess social and cultural capital but not enough of financial capital for deployment to produce surplus value – not in the prevailing political system. The present system is ‘corrupt’ and needs an overhaul precisely because it does not accord enough value to their social and cultural capital – encapsulated in the word ‘merit’.

Slaying the Corruption Dragon
Enter Team Anna/Kejriwal. Never before in independent India has the urban, literate middle class — cutting across the traditional divides of caste, religion or ethnicity — coalesced into an electorate by itself. But twenty years of consumerist prosperity has made this imminent.

This grouping of urbanised middle class Indians has tasted the fruits of western modernity. They are disgusted by the feudalism of the political class. They are even more disgusted by the impunity with which a tiny cabal of businessmen and politicians are sucking the country dry. But they are most disgusted at being left out of the banquet.

Clearly, the ‘system’ isn’t working. Not for them. Their sense of political entitlement is violently at odds with their political impotence. The BJP, which was supposed to look out for the entrepreneurial, meritorious, middle class Hindus, has long since betrayed its core constituency. It is less an opposition in Parliament than an envious but sporting rival. It is the political vacuum created by the BJP’s abnegation of its oppositional role that the anti-corruption brigade led by Team Anna/Kejriwal has exploited, and hopes to fill.

Hence the constant confusion about their relationship with the BJP: Are these guys with the BJP or not? They seem to be, with their borderline Hindutva symbolisms and rhetoric, but they are also anxious to distance themselves from the BJP, tainted as it is by the rot in the prevailing system. They want the BJP’s constituency but not its burdensome political legacy. So they walk the tightrope, leaning now on the side of jingoism and Hindutva, now tilting the other way to fire a few quick salvos against the ‘corrupt’ BJP.

For all its dangerous ideology, the BJP still has a political vision – of a Hindu rashtra. But the newly empowered middle classes, despite their recent political awakening, have no political vision as such. They may take pride in their Hindu identity, but they don’t care one way or the other about a Hindurashtra, which explains the BJP’s ongoing existential crisis. Nor are they animated by a sense of social responsibility towards those less fortunate than themselves. Rather than calling them the middle class, it would be more accurate to refer to them as the ‘consumer class’.

Their very idea of citizenship is mixed up with that of the consumer. Their overarching political anxiety is: How do I secure the goods and services for which I’m paying by way of taxes? They cannot entertain the idea that the state may have responsibilities even to those who cannot pay taxes because they don’t earn or consume enough to do so. Their idea of a functioning political system is one that can quietly lay out a smooth expressway to consumerist paradise: Good infrastructure, parking, no slums, and law and order so they can walk around in branded clothes without getting mugged. And, oh yes, affordable education, hospitals, etc.

What’s preventing this consumerist paradise from materialising? Corruption, of course! The Solution? Kill this dragon of corruption. The knights of the Anna round table will hunt down the Corruption Dragon and slay it. Then all Indians can live happily ever after. This is the fairy tale that the anti-corruption brigade is peddling. But that is all it is: A fairy tale.

The uses of corruption
To make sense of the Kejriwal phenomenon, and to understand why the corporate media (itself hardly a paragon of probity), which has little time for issues of deprivation and social justice, is so invested in this campaign against corruption, we need to ask some basic questions: What is corruption exactly? And what purpose is served by the high decibel discourse of corruption?

The most obvious rhetorical use of ‘corruption’ is as a diagnosis of what is ailing modern India. It presents us with an easy, identifiable, enemy: The corrupt. Where there is corruption, there are bound to be corrupt people, the Ravanas. Identify the corrupt, punish them, and cleanse the state of the corrupt, and India will be pristine once again, all set to fulfill her destiny of 10 per cent growth year after year for eternity.

Really? In fact, the syphoning of public funds into private pockets, or demanding bribes for doing a job (or not doing it) are symptoms of a malaise that runs deeper: a fundamental power inequality that comes into play soon as you erect an apparatus known as the state.

Power, as we all know, corrupts. Corruption is born at the same instant a bureaucrat is born – there is no existential gap that separates an ‘honest’ bureaucrat from a corrupt one, for the simple reason that every bureaucracy is nothing but an ejaculate of democracy getting shagged by power.

A politician holding an executive post is but another cog in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, though a prestigious one. He is different from the bureaucrat in only one respect: he is elected by the ‘people’, while the bureaucrat is selected through an exam or nominated by an elite. But his job is essentially one with that of the state: To serve the power elite.

Indeed, there is nothing about the quality of power wielded by a Lokpal that would make this bureaucrat immune to the fundamental logic of power.

The discourse of corruption serves four key purposes. Firstly, it crowds inequality and social justice off the mainstream agenda. The two issues are linked: Social justice will not be a major concern (as it isn’t for the anti-corruption brigade; their primary concern is ‘governance’) unless there is an uncompromising respect for political equality. But nobody would argue that India’s middle classes believe in egalitarianism. Apparently, ‘merit’ somehow confers on them a distinction that exempts them from the logic of political and social equality.

Secondly, corruption, like ‘human rights’ or ‘terrorism’, is a term emptied of context and history. The exclusive focus on corruption as the prime failing of the state obfuscates the fact that a nation-state’s primary job has always been to organise the protection of ruling class interests. The history of independent India is an abiding testament to this simple political truth. But the bogey of corruption deflects attention from the repressive nature of the state’s relationship with the overwhelming majority of its subjects, and the exploitative economic structures it enforces. Ever wondered why the benevolent Indian state still needs the colonial IPC? And POTA? And MCOCA? And AFSPA? And UAPA? And the sedition law? They’re not for meant for corrupt politicians, by the way.

Thirdly, the hyper-focus on corruption serves to blunt the sharpening political consciousness of the ‘under-class’ by offering them a simplistic discourse containing good guys and bad guys. The corrupt politician is Ravana, while the honest ones, like Kejriwal or Ashok Khemka, are like Rama. And if you know your Ramayana, you’d vote for Rama and the allies of Rama.

The ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’
Lastly, an exclusive focus on state corruption furthers the neo-liberal agenda of a leaner but meaner state. This has been pointed out by many commentators, including, most expansively, by the eminent economist Prabhat Patnaik.

This is how it works: By repeatedly associating state initiatives and programmes with corruption, you make a strong case for privatisation, for the handing over of public assets held in trust by the state (such as PSUs) into private hands. Simultaneously, because governmental corruption (and consequent inefficiency) is anyway sucking up all tax revenues, you make another strong case — for lower taxation.

But when you lower taxes, government revenues will go down, which means government expenditure has to go down too – so the government has to shrink. But since the defence budget (no matter how obscenely large for a poor country) cannot be cut, it is the social welfare schemes that have to go – so, Down with Subsidies! Down with NREGA! Down with PDS!

Since the state cannot tax its richest citizens, ie the corporations (it could spoil the investment climate), it will never have enough in its coffers to invest in public projects. So to raise the money, it has to call in foreign investors, who won’t come unless they can take out from the country far more than what they put in (that’s just capitalism, nothing personal). So you woo them with more tax sops. Thus presiding over the draining of public assets into private hands, the state cannot but abdicate its responsibility towards the vast majority. This abdication, then, is presented to the aam admi in the form of a simplistic, depoliticised narrative – the narrative of political corruption. And the cycle begins all over again.

This, in a nutshell, is the agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda. This is not to say that all IAC activists are going about their job with a cynical awareness of what they’re really up to. But many of them are fairly sophisticated intellectuals who ought to know which side of the class bread their one-dimensional crusade will butter.

If it weren’t for the comforting binary of ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’, the working classes and the peasantry — whose very real and legitimate anger against the political class the anti-corruption movement is tapping into — might well pose a serious threat to the prevailing order. The land of a million mutinies might even cobble together a revolution, if not splinter into a dozen fragments.

By turning into a political party, Team Kejriwal will only serve the ruling class agenda of funneling the growing anger of the mango people into the same old democratic channels that are hard-wired to betray them. Thanks to the mythical beast known as Corruption, the nation under siege has a common enemy that millions can unite against in hateful rage. So let’s go burn those effigies. Happy Dussehra!

Beware of those who speak of ‘national interest’

In Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell warns us against words and phrases drained of all meaning, words that can mean whatever the powerful want it to mean. One such term gaining in currency is ‘national interest’.

Government spin doctors (and their stenographers in the media) routinely conflate national interest with people’s interest. But ‘national interest’ is very different from the people’s interest.

‘National interest’ concerns a nation-state’s ability to wage war. Whatever enhances this ability is considered to be in the national interest; whatever threatens it is against the national interest. The most transparent expression of this principle is seen in the ruling classes’ obsession with ‘national security’.

The people’s interest, on the other hand, is always issue-specific. It is rooted in local geography, history, and community, while ‘national interest’ is tied to abstractions such as ‘development’ or ‘reform’ or ‘security’. The people’s interest might find a voice in democratic platforms, such as a movement or a party, while national interest is ‘protected’ through the executive and repressive arms of the state – the PMO, the police, etc. And where the people’s interest comes in conflict with ‘national interest’, the former will be booted out, democracy be damned.

A good example of ‘national interest’ is our mindless obsession with Kashmir, where anyone who speaks of the democratic will of the people of Kashmir is branded as ‘anti-national’. Hello! If India is a ‘democracy’, and democracy means implementing the will of the people, then the will of the people of Kashmir – whatever it is – should be carried out, and for that you don’t need AFSPA or mass graves or the army. A referendum should be good enough. Try telling that to the guardians of India’s ‘national interest’.

The real reason for the Indian elite’s obsession with Kashmir is that ‘losing Kashmir’ (whatever that means) will make the Indian state look ‘weak’. And because perceptions of weakness are as much a no-no as real weakness, it overrides the democratic rights of real human beings living in the Valley (people’s interest).
In fact, the momentum is going the other way: in his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Yo Yo Money Singh declared that economic growth will henceforth be a ‘national security’ issue. Now, that’s a very direct way of letting your people know that when it comes to enriching the already-rich in the name of economic growth, the state from now on has a ‘legitimate’ reason to crush people’s interest (real democracy): national security. Don’t you dare stand in the way – of SEZs, of mining, of forcible land acquisition for industry, etc.

This brings us to another Orwellian word: democracy. Democracy is not an absolute state, like, say, pregnancy. You’re either pregnant or you aren’t. But you can be a democracy and also not be one. How? Because democracy is a description of a process, and a matter of degree. Therefore, to say ‘India is a democracy’ means nothing. Democracy comes into existence only in history, in the processes followed in specific situations involving different interest groups.

In India, save for the urban educated middle class, democracy has served more as a safety valve mechanism for channelling frustration than as an effective tool to bring about lasting change in the lives of the disempowered. Two random examples will suffice to illustrate India’s failed experiment with democracy.

One, the terrible brutality with which the state repressed the villagers protesting the nuclear plant in Kudankulam, an action best described in the protesters’ own words – as “the murder of democracy”. Two, allowing FDI in retail, which will cause the immiseration of the 40 million people employed in India’s informal retail sector. Such a large-scale destruction of livelihoods is the worst kind of anti-people villainy that a state can unleash, and yet that is what India’s “democratically elected” government has done.

In today’s India, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for; when the people’s interest clashes with corporate interest, the moneybags are bound to win, as has happened with FDI in retail and in Kudankulam. In both these cases, the state was aligned with corporate interests and against its own people.

Whenever this happens, the standard ideological manoeuvre of the ruling dispensation is to invoke ‘national interest’ in some form or the other. In Kudankulam, the ‘national interest’ argument was invoked to shove an anti-people project down the throats a community opposed to it. In the case of FDI in retail, ‘national interest’ takes the avatar of ‘economic growth’ (now conveniently a matter of ‘national security’).

Historically, it has suited the national elites that control the state machinery to align themselves with the economic power that corporations wield. So the people will always find themselves acting ‘against the national interest’ whenever they act against the interests of corporate capital. Hence, the need to closely monitor them.

So every democratic nation-state will eventually degenerate into a police state. The process is well underway in India and the US, and it’s no coincidence that the bulk of the Indian security forces currently in active deployment are ranged against their own fellow citizens – from Kashmir to Kudankulam. The Nazis demonstrated long ago that nationalism is incompatible with democracy. Modi will demonstrate this for India in a few years.

The Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, is supposed to have said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun.” Today, whenever a government spokesperson speaks of ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ (or its post-modern avatar, ‘internal security’), it’s a sure sign that the state is preparing to use the gun against its own people. Operation Greenhunt, anyone?
G Sampath is an independent columnist based in Delhi.
He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Why gymmers should swap roles with workers

In Labour Rights, Lifestyle, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:52 pm

In his memoir of running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami lists the advantages of running versus other kinds of sport: “First of all, you don’t need anybody else to do it, and no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.”

Evidently, Murakami, who runs a marathon every year, has never tried running in India. If he had, he would have known that there are cities where you do have to go to a special place to run (a park or a ground or a gym) because the roads are too crowded and too polluted.

So going for a run outdoors is not easy if you’re in an Indian city. I can say this with some assurance because I’ve run in most of the Indian metros. I began running on a regular basis as a student in Hyderabad. I lived in a big, green campus where there was no dearth of running tracks. My only problem was getting up early. If I woke up late, it would be too hot to run. In the evenings, it remained too warm to run even till 7 or 8 pm.

During vacation time I’d go home to Chennai, and try to keep up my running schedule. But invariably I would fail, and have to start again with lazy, temperamental muscles when I got back to the university. The problem: Chennai’s street dogs. Running isn’t much fun if you keep getting chased by a bunch of half-starved animals barking their guts out and snapping at your heels.

One of the better cities for running has been Pune. In the late nineties, it was ideal – clean air, not much traffic, lots of greenery. Those were my best running years, in terms of timing, distances, and sustained fitness level. The gentle slopes added variety. But precisely because it was such a great place to run, I pushed myself too hard, and the tarmac almost killed my knees.

I console myself with the thought that in this regard I’m in good company – the great Shoaib Akhtar also ruined his knees running on city streets, and was a goner before he played his first match for Pakistan. That he still managed to make an impact just goes to show what an extraordinary athlete he was.

After Pune ruined my knees, I quit running. It took almost a year of physiotherapy and some very expensive footwear before I could hit the streets again. But I had to mix my road-running with ‘softer’ runs on a treadmill.

But I get quickly bored on a treadmill – it’s the same scene in front of you from the time you get on the machine till you get off. You’re either looking at your own mug in the mirror or at a fogged up window.

Most people try to ward off the boredom with headphones. But whether it’s music you’re plugged into or Emily Dickinson, it cuts you off from your immediate physical environment. Which of course is no big deal considering that a treadmill is itself a form of withdrawal – from the very ground beneath your feet, and you bounce instead on a rolling belt of ground-substitute.

With most public recreational spaces either swallowed up by construction or usurped by private parties, Indian cities are not runner-friendly. So the well-heeled, those for whom running is a part of their daily fitness routine, end up going to a gym. When I see all these grim, sweating faces I can’t help but wonder what a criminal waste it is – all these people huffing and puffing, consuming energy (the treadmills in most high-end gyms run on electricity) in order to expend energy.

What if all those calories being burnt can somehow be captured and channeled to some power station which would then convert it into electricity? Wouldn’t that light up a few thousand villages at least? In fact, Gurgaon, which is facing an acute power crisis and also has several up-market gyms, should seriously explore this.
I’m serious, this isn’t as dumb an idea as it seems. At least no dumber than the way we live. On the one hand you have millions of people who are forced to do hard, manual labour to save themselves from starvation; and on the other, another million or so engage in intense physical exertion that consumes a lot of energy (their own and those produced from power plants) and produces nothing but sweat.

What if everyone who has to work out and is currently paying a gym for this privilege, volunteered to do hard manual labour (for example, by carrying cement at a construction site) for as much time every day as their exercise time, say 30-60 minutes? Or maybe put in some time at a factory in Manesar or Faridabad?
This would be a win-win for everyone concerned. You are happy – you get your workout for free and stay fit. The workers are happy to let someone relieve them for an hour or so. And your gym owner is happy because he can do some cost-cutting by switching the treadmills off and reducing his power bills. To top it all, it would also better acquaint India’s gymming class with the life of the working class. Now that’s a ‘labour reform’ and a healthcare masterstroke rolled into one. Are Santa and Banta listening?
G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi.He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

Finally we know what India’s poor really want

In Politics, Satire, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on October 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I learnt something new today. Do you know what the poor need the most in their lives? Take a guess.

Did you say three square meals a day? Wrong! C’mon, the poor don’t need to eat so much. If they eat as much as we do, food prices will shoot up and the already inflated inflation will inflate even more.

Shelter? Oh no. We build homes only for two kinds of people these days: the rich, and those who can take a home loan. People below the poverty line (BPL) are obviously neither, so they don’t qualify.

Free healthcare? Don’t be silly. What if they flood our hospitals with their dirty, malnourished bodies? We can’t have that, can we?

Give up? Well, what the poor really want, what they really-really want, are mobile phones. That’s the earth-shattering discovery made by the babus and netas running this country. And they’ve set aside a cool Rs7,000 crore to gift a cell phone to every BPL family in India.

As per media reports, the PM will unveil this ‘welfare scheme’ (we’ll come back in a bit to the question of whose welfare), titled Har Hath Mein Phone, on August 15. So come Independence Day, six million of India’s BPL families will walk out of poverty into a new life — of cell phone-enriched poverty. And that’s not all. Along with a handset, the state will also bestow a bonanza of TWO HUNDRED MINUTES of FREE local talk time!!!

I can already see people jumping up and down in joy at this largesse. Only, somehow, they don’t seem like people below the poverty line. Some of them look like cell phone manufacturers to me. Others look like service providers. And the rest look like politicians. Not your typical BPL lot. How come?

The Rs7,000 crore, or whatever government funds are eventually spent on this scheme — guess whose pockets they’re going to end up in? Not with the BPL families – they only get a cell phone, remember? Plus 200 minutes of FREE talk time. A little bird tells me the bidders who win the right to provide the service are set to rake it in. Our famously incorruptible ministers and bureaucrats will honestly ‘evaluate’ bids from the private sector, and of course, none of the bids will be from companies set up expressly for this scheme by some politician or the other in the name of his brother-in-law or daughter-in-law.

But it’s not about the money alone – please don’t underestimate our political class. Reportedly, the government is excited about this scheme also because it will “provide an opportunity for the ruling dispensation to open a direct line of communication with a sizeable population that plays an active role in elections.”

Assuming “plays an active role in elections” means voting, basically it means the UPA can spam the poorest of the poor with text messages urging them to set aside trivial concerns like where the next meal’s going to come from, and instead go and vote for their candidates. After all, we gave you a cell phone, didn’t we? And 200 minutes of free talk time? Have some gratitude, you poor people!

Apparently, the government wants to pitch the Har Hath Mein Phone scheme as a “major empowerment initiative of the UPA 2” with an eye on the 2014 general elections. Maybe I’m missing something here, but can someone explain how a BPL family, a family that, more often than not, comprises indebted, semi-literate, chronically malnourished persons with almost no prospects other than a lifetime of poorly paid, exploitative casual labour, is supposed to become empowered by the sudden ownership of a cell phone (and 200 minutes of free local talk time)?

How? My neighbour, for instance, tried very hard to empower her maid by giving her a cell phone. But the poor thing (pun intended) apparently didn’t want to be empowered — at least not telephonically. Each time my neighbour gave her a cell phone (I must add it was for her own convenience, so that the girl could inform her if she was going to take leave or be late for work), within a month or two, she would come back and tell her she’d ‘lost’ the phone. This happened three times before my neighbour realised that the girl perceived more empowering properties in hard cash than in a handset (which she’d been selling off).

So what are the chances that the BPL families would sell off the phones after using up the 200 minutes of free talk time? Maybe they’ll sell it even before they use up the talk time. And that’s assuming they get these phones in the first place and some low-level clerk doesn’t divert them to the grey market.

But let’s assume that all the six million targeted BPL families get the phones. And that they don’t sell them. What are they going to do with them? Download free anti-hunger apps? Perhaps there are anti-malarial apps that can be downloaded directly into your bloodstream. Or maybe they’ll look for road-laying work on naukri.com.

You never know. Perhaps the bold visionary genius of the likes of Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia will come up with some new technology-driven solution to poverty and hunger that can be solved simply by giving everybody a UID card and a cell phone.

I have a better idea though. Better than Har Hath Mein Phone. It’s called Har Hath Mein Gun. Give all the BPL households a gun, a free bullet for each family member. Tell them to shoot themselves in the head.

G Sampath is an independent writer based in
Delhi. He’s reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com
linbox@dnaindia.net

Can India Inc. face the truth about the Manesar violence?

In Business, Labour Rights, Management, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on July 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm

It would be sad if the ghastly violence at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which a HR manager died, were to be understood simply as a ‘murderous workers’ vs ‘rational management’ kind of an incident. There is a history and a context to this violence, and how that is understood, and acknowledged, by India Inc. will indicate how serious we are about preventing such incidents in the future.

First of all, let’s begin with a game of call-a-spade-a-spade. When your profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when your CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when you get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when your workers’ real wages increase by just 5.5% when the consumer price index rose by 50% (2007-11) (figures as reported by the researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh in The Hindu), when a worker can lose nearly half his salary for taking a couple of days leave in a month – you have a situation that free market economists are programmed not to register: extreme exploitation.

As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar campus are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices, trainees, what have you. While the permanent worker gets a maximum of Rs17000 per month, the contract worker gets a maximum of Rs7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). And unlike the worker, who gets only two 7.5 minute tea/toilet breaks during an eight-hour shift, and has to run 150 metres to pick up his tea and snack, run another 400 metres to the toilet, drink tea and piss at the same time, holding his cup in one hand and you-know-what in the other, and run back to the assembly line before the seven minutes are up (as otherwise he could end up losing half a day’s pay), the top management does not, I think, get penalised if they spend more than 7.5 minutes at a time flooding the toilet.

The backstory

Apart from the physical and economic exploitation, what the workers were reacting to on July 18 was the sustained assault on their dignity. In 2011, there had been at least three confrontations – in June, September and October — between the workers and the management. All were totally non-violent. The workers had been agitating for an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). After a lot of struggle, they registered the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU) in October last year. But in the same month, the management reportedly got rid of the troublesome leadership of this union by offering them a VRS-type settlement.

The workers then formed a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) with a new set of committee members. It was this union which had been negotiating with the management through 2012 – for wage increases, for transportation facilities, slowing down the robotic pace of work, and regularisation of leave benefits.

But with the MSWU apparently making little headway in the negotiations, discontent was simmering among the workers. And on July 18, when a floor supervisor allegedly misbehaved with a Dalit worker (Jiyalal), and instead of the supervisor getting pulled up, the worker got suspended, the new union was expected to deliver – to get Jiyalal reinstated. And when it began to look like they wouldn’t be able to, violence broke out.

The management has said that the workers unleashed the violence. The workers say that the management instigated it by getting hundreds of bouncers to attack the workers, who responded to that attack. But nobody seems to know what exactly happened. The truth might be closer to what a labour activist describes as a combination of karna, karwana and hone dena.

The permanently temporary worker

At the heart of this whole mess is India Inc.’s love for contract labour. My research tells me that manufacturing cars is not a seasonal enterprise – it happens round the year; nor is assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. According to the law of the land – the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, it is illegal to employ contract labour where “work is perennial and must go on from day to day”, “where the work is necessary for the work of the factory”, and “where the work is sufficient to employ considerable number of whole time workmen.”

It is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law, and the government’s responsibility to ensure that it is not violated. Not even the MSIL management can deny that they have been using temporary workers for permanent, core, production work. And this is not something that happens in this one plant of Maruti Suzuki. In the entire NCR region – in Manesar, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida – where there are thousands of factories of all sizes that carry out manufacturing work round the year, the average percentage of permanent workers in the total workforce is 15%. About 85% of the workforce is made up of non-permanent labour. And non-permanent labour includes contract workers, apprentices, trainees, etc. — add all of them and the percentage of temporary workers becomes as high as 95% in many factories. And these workers remain ‘temporary’ for years and years. I guess you could say that corporate India’s favourite worker is the permanently temporary one.

It wasn’t always this bad. The percentage of contract labour as a proportion of the total workforce doing core manufacturing work has been steadily rising since 1991, the year liberalisation began, and today, the informalisation and fragmentation of what used to be formal or organised labour has reached absurd levels. What this means, in human terms, for the workers, is exploitation of a kind that is not much different from slave labour.

To take a simple example, many factories have what is called the ‘night shift’ and the ‘full night shift’. The ‘night shift’ is from 9am to 1am and the ‘full night shift’ is from 9am to 5 am, resuming again at 9am. Yes, 16-hour and 20-hour shifts are pretty common in the NCR, about as common as the rampant violation of labour laws. And yet, we never hear about the appalling condition of India’s working class, or about how India Inc. routinely breaks the nation’s labour laws with impunity and gets away with it. Or is it possible that this is how we want most of our fellow Indians to live? We seem to care more about one Indian winning an Olympic gold than 700 million Indians living like insects in a drain. All we hear, instead, is how ‘labour law reforms’ are necessary to improve the ‘investment climate’.

Before and after Manesar

Such extreme exploitation is bound to trigger unrest at some point, and the Manesar violence is only the latest in a long series of worker conflagrations that we have seen in the past decade – in Honda Motors, Rico Auto, Orient Craft, EIRO, Pricol and many others. And they are not exclusive to NCR – similar unrest has been seen in other parts of the country as well, and they are only set to spread even more. There are four simple take-aways from all of this:

One: the growing irrelevance of the union. The workers’ unions can only represent the permanent workers. The vast majority of the workers are temporary ones, and the union means little to them, as it does not represent them. The union has traditionally been a management tool to control the workers. But in this scenario, where the union has little leverage, the management either has to play it straight (pay fair wages, give decent working conditions and benefits) or call bouncers and goons to control the workers.

Two: there is a clear nexus between the state and the corporate managements. The two have come together to maximize the exploitation of the worker. Haryana, where Manesar is located, has not even bothered to constitute the legally mandated board that is supposed to oversee the enforcement of the Contract Labour Act. The labour department is conveniently understaffed, and the cops, like cops everywhere, protect the exploiter from the exploited.

According to the workers, not just cops, but also bouncers, local goons, private security agencies, intelligence agencies (take a wild guess who put out the story about the ‘Naxal hand’ in the incident), and even the local village headmen (many of whom are huge beneficiaries of the recent industrialisation of the area – having made money from selling part of their land holdings, from renting out accommodation to workers, from getting into the transportation business, ferrying goods and material to and from the factories, as labour contractors, and other kinds of ‘middleman’ services) have been enlisted to ‘fix’ the ‘troublesome’ workers.

Three: the average factory worker in the NCR today, particularly in Manesar, is a new breed. Corporate India is very clear what it wants: absolute control over the Indian worker. But factory workers of today are not like those workers of 20-30 years ago. They are mostly ITI-trained diploma holders, young, in their twenties, mobile-savvy, net-savvy, and don’t have the time for good old ‘Down with Capitalism’ kind of sloganeering. They don’t care for the ‘communist’ stuff any more than your standard issue MBA. Though they have been hired as contract labour, unlike, say, construction workers, they are not from dirt poor backgrounds. Many are from lower-middle or middle-middle class families; they are exposed to the mall-bound luxuries of Shining India, and they want their rightful share of the GDP they busted their ass to produce. And: they care about their dignity more than they care about their jobs, and that’s easy, because they don’t really have a job anyway – they are temporary workers hired by a contractor, see?

And when such a worker is pushed to breaking point – not just worked to the bone, but taunted and humiliated, he is liable to lash out blindly. And when that happens, you get what happened at MSIL’s Manesar plant last week. It is not a rational or premeditated action – they gained nothing from it. Such violence serves no purpose. In fact, most of them are now busy hiding from the cops. But that is the nature of a rebellion – it is not calculated, it is not rational. And that is how we must understand the Manesar eruption: as a workers’ revolt.

Four: Capitalism is not sustainable without an independent union. If you look at the so-called golden period of capitalism in the 20th century, the US after the New Deal, up to the time Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene, it was a period marked by strong independent unions that managed to get the workers a decent standard of living, and Capital was forced to keep its ‘social contract’, as it were, with Labour. But then, this period, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was also the period when communism had to be kept at bay; it was the period when capitalists had to show the world that capitalism is a better system for everyone (and not just capitalists) than any other system.

But today, of course, there is no alternative to capitalism, or so the masters of the universe want us to believe. And they also want us to believe there is no need for an independent union because they have a right to squeeze the worker as much as they want, and can. But history – and countless management studies – has shown time and again that a union which enjoys the confidence of the workers is the best tool that management can ever have to ‘control’ the workers. Hire temporary workers, take the union out of the picture – well, you’ll rake in super-profits for a while, but you’re going to have to pay a heavy price later in terms of worker unrest, and the kind of incident we saw at Manesar last week.

Yes, it is true that India’s labour legislation right now is a total mess. We have about 55 central labour laws and more than a 100 state laws, and they are all mostly observed in the breach. It is also argued that these laws make it unreasonably difficult to lay off a worker, and this is cited as the reason why employers want to keep their permanent workers to the bare minimum. The legislation in question here is the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which requires companies employing more than 100 workers to seek government approval before firing anybody or closing down.

While this provision should be debated, with equal participation from all the stakeholders, India Inc. needs to look at it less as an unpleasant provision to be eliminated or circumvented, and more as a necessary reminder that a business enterprise always has a social dimension that is as important as profit, and which it ignores at its own peril. Trample on workers’ livelihood and dignity, and your profit is basically blood money – it won’t say so in the balance sheet or the P&L statement, but it will show up somewhere, later, if not sooner. It could be the money you pay to bouncers and private security agencies; or the money you spend on surveillance equipment; it could be an expensive lockout; or it could be the brain tumour caused by all the curses of your downsized workforce; or it could even be the death of one of your managers.

Instead of shedding crocodile tears about the worsening ‘investment climate’, the oligarchs who make up Indian Inc. and their MBA underlings would do well to engage in some soul-searching. For a change, they can ask themselves: Should I continue to treat the Indian worker simply as a cost factor that has to be reduced to zero, or can I treat them with a little more respect, so that they too can live, and work, with dignity?

 

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

What were we as a society before we became corrupt?

In Culture and Society, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:33 pm
First published in DNA, June 2, 2012

This year marks the silver jubilee of the Bofors scandal — the first time that we as a nation felt a collective rage over corruption. We were so pissed that we voted Rajiv Gandhi out of power. Much public money has flowed into private coffers since. And today, nobody can say that the country is less corrupt now than it was 25 years ago.
If anything, 2012 has so far yielded a bumper harvest of scams, with Wikipedia listing 38 scams as of May 31 — a new scam every 3.9 days, or 93.6 scams a year.
Of course, we are not sitting back and twiddling our thumbs, no sir. We’ve had a high decibel anti-corruption campaign going for some time now. In fact, you will not find a single Indian who is in favour of corruption. But it makes you wonder: how come then, when every single citizen of India (including Sharad Pawar and P Chidambaram and BS Yeddyurappa and Mukesh Ambani) is against corruption, corruption is so endemic?
Or is it possible that all this breast-beating over corruption is just a smokescreen that prevents people from seeing the real problems — in our society, among us, with every single one of us?
The unstated assumption of the entire anti-corruption discourse is that corruption is some external disease or virus that can be rooted out or destroyed. But what if corruption is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the people we love, the god we worship?
What if our very conscience, our inclination to think, to care, has been infected, and corruption has built its nests in our very cells and tissues and pancreas and medulla oblongata? You can’t very well chop off your medulla oblongata, can you? Obviously, the best you can do is to become conscious of the real state of your medulla oblongata, and how it is affecting your thinking and your behavior and your desires and your fears.
To take another metaphor, if you keep your house dirty, you will get cockroaches. And we all know that, no matter how many times you call pest control, the cockroaches will keep coming back so long as your house is dirty. Besides, it’s not enough even if your own house is clean. If your neighbours keep their homes dirty, or your surrounding environment is unclean, the cockroaches will not go away.
Corruption is the indestructible cockroach that will multiply and multiply so long as our society’s defining values are the moral equivalent of dirt. What then, are our society’s defining values? Simply stated, they are: power, and money as a currency of power. Most people today spend their entire lives chasing either power or money. And so do our elected rulers whose decisions shape our lives.
Some people get the quantum of power/money they need and are content to use it to get what they really want. A vast majority live without the basic minimum power/money required to live a life of dignity and fulfillment. And the tiny minority (in this, I include humans as well as non-human entities like nation-states, corporations and political parties) who monopolise a huge chunk of power/money use it only to accumulate more of power/money. If you did an X-ray of our society today, you’ll see a huge hole in its heart. The medical term for this hole: moral void.
The French philosopher and mathematician Simone Weil defined evil quite simply as ‘the substitution of means for ends.’ Power is a means. To possess power ‘is simply to possess means of action which exceed the very limited force that a single individual has at his disposal,’ notes Weil. But in a society built around a power hierarchy, the seeking of power, expanding it, and retaining it, takes the place of all, and any, ends the power was supposed to be the means of achieving.
We have seen this too many times in history — from the Roman Empire, to the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and now in India, where the brown-skinned rulers of today have ganged up with the white-skinned ones they replaced, and together they are ranged against the dark-skinned natives across the length and breadth of the country — from Chhattisgarh, to Orissa to Kudankulam, Jaitapur, Mithi Virdi, and wherever you look.
Corruption is the logical culmination of a belief system that says the end justifies the means. Before you know it, you’ve reached a point where the means are all that matters — Weil’s classic definition of evil. So, sitting in a world where profit (a means) is an end in itself, economic growth (a means) is an end, national security (a means) is an end, it is rather naïve to talk of combating corruption without first addressing this reversal of means for ends.
Economic growth, political power and national security are all means to an end, which, let us say, is a just society. But if you read our newspapers, watch our TV channels, and listen to our businessmen and politicians, you don’t get the impression that a just society is on anybody’s agenda. But then, why will the powerful care for justice?
Corruption is simply another name for concentration of power in one or a few individuals either directly or through institutional mechanisms like the state or the corporation.
Therefore, the only way to eliminate corruption is by eliminating concentration of power, such that every person has the same amount of power as everyone else. Is that an impossible utopia? Well, if you believe it is not a value worth striving for, then you might as well go ahead and pay that bribe and get on with your made-to-order anti-corruption campaign.

A brief introduction to Boo-lean algebra

In Book Reviews, Culture and Society, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm
First published in DNA, May 5, 2012

Let me say this upfront: Katharine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an excellent work of reportage (narrowly conceived); the language is beautiful (it’s beauty all the more striking given the ugliness of the language’s referents); and it’s heart is in the right place – Boo’s sincerity and concern for the people she writes about are not in question. Having said that, Behind The… is also a seriously flawed book. On at least three counts.
Number one: Boo’s ideological baggage, and her seeming obliviousness to it, restricts her to a symptomatic understanding of poverty. It is this superficial understanding that informs her approach to her subject – the human beings who live in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum.
What do I mean by ‘ideological baggage’? In sociological terms, it refers to one’s beliefs about the nature of the world which we take to be the truth, forgetting (or not realising) that it is merely one narrative about the nature of the world, but a narrative that has been elevated to the status of truth by powerful institutions. It also means that there can be no ‘reportage’, no ‘facts’ and no writing as such, that is ‘outside of ideology’ or ‘ideologically neutral’. This is a basic given that informs most academic writing.
But ‘ideological neutrality’ is a myth that continues to survive in the minds of journalists and editors and even Pulitzer Prize winners, and they often speak about ‘journalistic objectivity’ with the same touching faith that a three-year-old talks about Santa Claus.
I don’t have access to Boo’s mind beyond the evidence of her writing. But such evidence as exists points to complete ignorance (or is it indifference?) about the nature of her book considered as an ideological project. In her Author’s Note, Boo states that she wrote the book to answer the following questions: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?”
The book’s foundational questions reveal, in stark terms, the intellectual bad faith of Boo’s endeavour. For example: how did she arrive at the conclusion that lack of opportunity causespoverty, as opposed to being the effect of poverty? She didn’t: it is merely an assumption that allows her to hold on to the ideological fiction that creating an “infrastructure of opportunity” is the best way to combat poverty.
And this logical inversion in her thinking is the ideological filter which ensures that her narrative will never interrogate either the western, scientific, modern values and the contractual relations that they legitimize, or the global institutions and practices they gave rise to, and at whose mercy every Annawadian lives and dies.
As a result, Boo takes the poverty of the Annawadians as a given. In her book, poverty is an effect of nature, like sunlight or gravity. She notes that all the families in Annawadi are migrants. But does she ask what forces drove them to become migrants? Surely that’s a fundamental question you need to ask if you’re planning a “deeply reported account” of the people you’re studying?
But no, Boo doesn’t name the forces that made Karam Husain leave Siddharthnagar, “the impoverished Uttar Pradesh district where Karam had been raised”, and choose a miserable existence in Mumbai. Was it even a choice? How did people in Siddharthnagar live before it became “impoverished”? Or was it always already an “impoverished Uttar Pradesh district”?
The closest Boo comes to asking such questions is in the case of Asha, a wannabe slum lord. Boo follows Asha to her village in Vidharbha where, faced with the reality of farmer suicides, she gets a big opportunity to connect the dots – between rural distress and urban migration and destitution. But all she has to offer is this: “Ashamed and in debt, somefarmers (italics mine) killed themselves – an old story, one of the Marathi-movie staples.”
It is an accepted sociological fact (not necessarily acknowledged by economics) proven by innumerable studies and research projects, that poverty is caused by disempowerment. The less control a people or a community have over their lives and resources, the more they are likely to slip into deeper and deeper poverty.
Economic development in independent India, and especially the accelerated phase of development that has generated the new-found ‘prosperity’ that Boo is so dazzled by, has been predicated on a systematic dispossession and disempowerment of large masses of people who, though they may never have been wealthy in monetary terms, were by no means living in want.
Vidarbha’s farmers before the advent of multinational seed companies and an export-focussed agricultural policy, Chhattisgarh’s adivasis before the state government signed MOUs with mining companies, residents of Tamil Nadu’s Illuppur town, a thriving centre of artificial diamond polishing before India opened its markets to cheap Chinese gemstones — to take just three examples, were doing okay in their modest, low-efficiency, low productivity, low consumption, low carbon economies.
But the hunger of global economic capital for their land, resources and new markets – a hunger which moved the Indian state more than the hunger of its own people – kick-started the processes that became liberalisation (for the overcity) and pauperization for the vast majority, which then had no option but to embark upon the long march to various ‘undercities’ in megacities like Mumbai.
Urban poor don’t drop from the skies. They come from somewhere, and they are actively produced when India’s predatory urban class preys upon the resources of the rural poor (most commonly, their land) in order to sustain its own unsustainable economies.
The aluminium that Abdul collects as scrap as well as Abdul himself, are products of the same process of plunder unleashed by the forces of global capital whose servant the Indian state has become, and corruption is merely the lubricant that facilitates the relentless sodomising of the 99% by the 1%.
Reading Boo, it is possible to imagine that you and I, and our lives in gated communities, have no direct bearing on the sewage-enriched lives of the Annawadians. This can be such a liberating thing to know, it is hardly surprising that IMF-ers and copybook neoliberals have fallen in love with the book despite its excoriating account of poverty in shining India. It is after all nice to be freed of the moral responsibility for the misery of fellow citizens.
For all her claims to a “vagrant-sociology approach”, Boo is in no mood to acknowledge, let alone report on, the screaming fact that the creation of poverty is an integral part of the very processes that have brought mind-boggling prosperity to those perched at the top of the economic food chain.
By not identifying these pauperising processes for what they are, Boo presents a misleading picture of what she calls “the infrastructure of opportunity”. Of course, there will always be some space for a few individuals to come and take a bigger bite of the crumbs that drop off the high table. It is these crumbs that Abdul and Asha fight for, and accumulate, and hope will lead them to middle-class respectability. But Boo doesn’t ask why they are only ever in a position to seek crumbs and not sit at the high table themselves.
Instead, her exclusive focus on the immediate reality of poverty leads her to magnify how the poor screw the happiness of other poor. As you read again and again how the poor fuck the poor, the fact that the rich have already fucked the poor by rigging things in such a way that the only way the poor can survive is by fucking other poor doesn’t seem so noteworthy anymore.
In other words, the question to ask in a book like this is not about “the infrastructure of opportunity” but the “infrastructure of empowerment/disempowerment”. Sadly, Boo doesn’t want to go there, and her book stands diminished by this refusal.
In fact, the best work of nonfiction about poverty in contemporary India is a rather less lushly written volume, titled Listening To People Living In Poverty, a publication brought out by the NGO ActionAid, in December 2003. Unlike Behind The…, not only does it document lives, it also provides an explanatory framework for understanding the life stories it documents.
It is less about journalistic flair, more about articulating a truthful answer to the real question that is the burden of a book like Boo’s: why do the Annawadians continue to remain poor? Is it possible that the majority of them remain poor not despite India’s growth story but because of it? Such a possibility does not come within a thousand miles of Boo’s mind, let alone cross it.
In her review (the sanest one I’ve read so far), academic Mitu Sengupta fears that “that the neoliberal establishment will find substance, in Boo’s book, for their wider narrative of why the government can only ever fail, and why retracting the already-thin cover of publicly funded programs remains the best bet for getting India back on track.”
It is easy to see why her fears are fully justified: there is nothing in the book that indicates Boo’s understanding of poverty and its alleviation is radically different from that of the neoliberals. Boo believes that a better “distribution of opportunity” is the way out. The neoliberal gang has no problem with that. The problem comes when you start talking about distribution of power, and sharing control over resources and decision-making – then things get ‘political’. And Boo’s book, of course, is pure reportage, a polished gem of facticity itself, and totally ‘apolitical’ – which is precisely how ideology operates.
While there is nothing in her book to discourage its co-option into the neoliberal agenda, there’s plenty — especially about how government welfare schemes suck – to actively encourage it. It’s hard to imagine that Boo is innocent of these possibilities.
Number two: Boo’s strategy of novelising her narrative and yet keeping herself out of this novelised account clashes with the moral responsibility that an author of nonfiction has towards her subjects.
Throughout her narrative, Boo remains the invisible, all-seeing subject, while the poor Annawadians are objects of her authorial gaze. While we get to know what she thinks of each of them, we never get to know what they think of her and her project. She makes a cursory attempt to redress this imbalance in her Author’s Note at the end, but that’s not the same as putting yourself at the same level, and sharing the same space, as your interlocutors – both in the life situations in the slum, and in the text.
An effect of this segregation is that, by the end of the book, the slum-dwellers remain ‘them’ and the readers remain ‘we’. Boo writes, without any self-consciousness, “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who have means are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.” Now, who is this “we” here? And who are “we” to pass judgement on the poor? Ironically, this is also the closest Boo comes to acknowledging that the poor are so completely disempowered that they have no say in the choices of governments and markets. Yet she does not see this as having anything to do with why they are poor. Nice.
Finally, Boo’s portrait of the poor, instead of rendering their selves as real to the readers as their own (reader’s) selves, ends up other-ing the poor. Of course, an otherness conceived as a separate self that is ultimately mysterious and hence unknowable and worthy of respect is what good novels are about.
But Boo’s novelistic narrative stops the poor-as-the-other at a comfortable distance – they are the ‘other’ defined at the level of people-not-like-us, people we can understand through, and meet in, Boo’s book, but not people with whom “we” can discuss national economic policy.
Boo does not portray even one poor person as someone who can empathise with or understand the life of someone from the overcity, except in broad aspirational brushstrokes.
More than anything else, it is this authorial snobbery that caricatures their humanity – they are human, no doubt, but not so human that they can occupy the same space as our own intimate selves in our world, or Boo’s self in her book. It would have been interesting, and only fair, to see their understanding of her life, of her values, of her childhood, of her ambitions, articulated in these pages. But we don’t get it.
Boo, however, gets full access to all their innermost secrets, and shares them with millions of strangers. If she had an ethical issue with this one-sided relationship, we don’t hear about it.
That is why, having read the book, we, like Boo on the last page of her book, can still think of Annawadians as ‘they’ and ourselves as ‘we’. We can congratulate ourselves on our resources of empathy, our ability to be moved by the suffering – and then go back to cursingthose hawkers who have encroached on our footpaths.
We acknowledge another’s humanity not merely by empathising with them, or getting to know them intimately, but by letting them empathise with us – which is the real test of class barriers. This is where Boo’s book fails most spectacularly – not one resident of Annawadi is shown to be capable of understanding Boo in the same way she is allowed to apprehend their lives’ meaning. This water tight segregation of the self and the other is both the charm (for the non-Annawadian reader) and the harm in Boo’s beautiful narrative.

How is Manmohan Singh different from nuclear waste?

In Celebs, Environment, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:56 am

G Sampath | Saturday, March 3, 2012

First published in DNA
In one of her talks in Mumbai that I attended some years ago, Arundhati Roy posed this question to the audience, or maybe she was quoting from a Hindi poem. She asked, ‘Kya kar raha hai Manmohan Singh aaj kal?’ As the audience tittered, she answered, ‘Vish kya karta hai khoon mein utarne ke baad?’ (What is Manmohan Singh doing these days? What does poison do after it enters the blood stream?)
I don’t remember the context in which she made these comments, but it is an apt description of Singh’s doings over the last couple of weeks. A man who is, according to popular perception, ‘weak’, ‘a puppet’, ‘silent’, and ‘timid’, roars into life just when it matters most. Matters most to whom is the billion dollar question (pun intended).
The last time Singh displayed signs of possessing a vertebral column was in 2008, when he actually threatened to resign if the India-US nuclear deal did not happen. He eventually pushed it through despite the majority in Parliament (the much-vaunted ‘mandate’ of the Indian people) being against it. And we all know about the cash-for-votes scandal that accompanied the trust vote over the nuclear deal.
This time, once again, it is for the nuclear lobby that Singh has rediscovered his tongue and spinal cord. In an interview with the American journal Science, he has made uncharacteristically malicious allegations about the people’s movement against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, suggesting NGOs funded by US and Scandinavian donors are backing the protests.
If the NGOs connected with the anti-nuclear agitation have diverted foreign funds, sure, they need to be dealt with as per the provisions of the Foreign Currency (Regulation) Act. But is that the issue here? What I find rather pathetic is the reptilian manner in which Singh has successfully shifted the Kudankulam debate away from the real issues (like cost, safety, and the absence of an independent nuclear regulatory regime) to a non-issue (foreign-funding of NGOs).
One might well ask: Is it the protests against the Kudankulam nuclear plant that is funded by foreign money, or the plant’s advocates, namely, Singh and his government? Who exactly are the foreigners here? The guys building the plant are Russians. The nuclear fuel for the reactors will also be supplied by foreigners, maybe Americans, who are now eligible to do so, thanks to Singh’s nuclear deal. As for the man maligning the opposition to the project, well, Singh is undoubtedly the most foreign money-friendly PM in India’s history.
And who is the PM accusing of taking money from foreign hands? The protesters opposing the Kudankulam nuclear project. And who are they? Fisher folk, farmers, shopkeepers, Dalit workers, beedi-rolling women, and residents of Kudankulam and Idinthakarai villages. These fishermen and workers have been forking out small donations in cash and kind to sustain their simple, nonviolent struggle. They don’t need big money to keep their protests going simply because it’s a matter of life and death for them.
But even assuming, for the sake of argument, that foreign money has gone into sustaining these protests, does that make the protests illegitimate? The government has the entire resources of the state at its disposal, not to mention a compliant media ready to offer crores worth of media space for pro-nuclear, pro-state propaganda. Setting aside the legality of it, don’t the poor villagers of Kudankulam — the David fighting the Goliath of the corporate state — have a moral right to access whatever financial support comes their way, be it from within India or abroad?
Having said that, Singh has not produced a shred of evidence to back his insinuation that the Kudankulam protests are aided by foreign NGOs. And now, following his lead, the Maharashtra State Congress has begun to allege that the protests against the Jaitapur nuclear project are also backed by foreign NGOs.
Basically, the idea is that the state will have a monopoly over virtue, just as it has a monopoly over the use of force. And the lever that will enable the state to retain this monopoly is the notion of ‘national interest’, which assumes centrality in the emotionally charged discourse of patriotism. Violent protests will be dismissed as Maoism or terrorism or separatism, all crimes against the Indian state. And non-violent protests that threaten to upset the corporate applecart can be dismissed as foreign-funded and hence anti-Indian. And, of course, who can dare argue with patriotism?
But what a strange and schizophrenic patriotism this is, which believes India cannot grow without foreign money or FDI, and welcomes foreign capital in the form of a Monsanto but launches a witch hunt against NGOs that may campaign against Monsanto using foreign money.
Much has been made of how Singh is supposedly ‘clean’. In reality he’s no different from a Raja or a Koda — only, his corruption doesn’t take the form of graft. Singh’s corruption is the corruption of a functionary, of someone who can stoop to any level to please his political masters, or mistress, as the case may be, and this somehow strikes me as far more ignoble than the corruption of someone who is merely greedy or power-hungry.
In a matter of just 20 years since liberalisation, unleashed, incidentally, by Singh in his avatar as finance minister, the world’s biggest democracy has devolved into a banana republic where a bunch of thugs can easily murder freedom of expression and get away with it while it’s almost impossible to express dissent or protest in a meaningful manner. The Indian state, and foreign capital, whose domestic help Singh is, have it all worked out. The poison is doing its job well.

‘Constitutions serve a managerial purpose’

In Interview, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:53 am

G Sampath: Sunday, Feb 26, 2012
First published in DNA
While we take written Constitutions for granted today, human beings did not always organise their societies based on rules laid out in a single document. In an exclusive interview, Linda Colley, professor of history at Princeton University, who has done extensive research on the role of written constitutions in the evolution of the modern world of nation states, and was in India recently on a lecture tour, tells DNA how they served as political devices that fostered internal colonialism and aided overland and maritime empire. Excerpts:
The dominant view of a written constitution is that it is a progressive force. Are you suggesting that it is primarily a tool of empire? Would you say that of the Indian Constitution as well?
In part because the advent of modern written constitutions is so closely bound up with the American and French Revolutions, these instruments tend to be viewed as a progressive force. They often have been, but it depends on the constitution in question. In practice, constitutions can be both progressive and authoritarian. For instance, Stalin drafted a constitution in the ’30s which provided for democracy and which was ratified by over 50 million people. But this constitution was also worded so as to tie the different parts of the Soviet empire tightly together. As Edmund Burke analysed in the 1790s, virtually all written constitutions (including India’s) are the work of small groups of individuals.As senior advocate RajeevDhavan writes, many parts of India’s Constitution “struck a chord with some of the people. But whether ‘the people’ participated in the process of constitution-making is highly doubtful”. Virtually all constitutions have some kind of didactic and managerial purpose.
How would you characterise the relationship between the American constitution and American empire today?
The Federal Constitution of 1787 helped conceal from white Americans that the USA retained imperial features: it excluded indigenous peoples and blacks as well as women from citizenship, yet fostered the idea of all of the American continent as potentially a Union, a nation. Since the late 19thcentury, Americans have also (along with the British) been keen on writing constitutions for others — for instance, for Japan and Germany after 1945. As this suggests, the American constitution is a vital part of American self-legitimation as well as a text of government. It is a text which caters to the still powerful notion that the US is the vital beacon of liberty for the world.
How do you account for the universal popularity of the written constitution? What was the single biggest factor in its gaining such wide acceptance?
The success and prosperity of the US after 1787 was a great advertisement for written constitutions, especially after slavery was abolished there with the Civil War. But the most powerful reason why written constitutions took off, I suspect, was that their invention coincided with a mass expansion of print across the continents. This is one of the most important and unexplored aspects of 19th century global history: how newspapers and magazines reprinted written constitutions from across the world and so gave people struggling for rights all sorts of new political ideas.
How do you respond to the fact that the past year has seen so many mass mobilsations and people’s protests in many parts of the world, many of them asking for nothing more than for implementation of constitutional guarantees?
This shows both the strength and the limits of written constitutions. They are only as good and as effective as how far they are implemented and abided by, by the powerful. If a country’s rulers and military can override or ignore them, written constitutions, as James Madison said, are no more than pieces of parchment or paper

The Pereira and the Ferreira: A tale of two Bandra boys

In Culture and Society, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

G Sampath | Saturday, January 21, 2012

First published in DNA 

One guy killed seven people and spent one month in jail. Another killed nobody and spent 56 months in jail. As they say, we are all equal before the law, aren’t we.
The double standards of the Indian state — mind-boggling benevolence in one case, calculated viciousness in another — are nowhere more apparent than in the case of two Bandra boys, one a Pereira, the other a Ferreira, both of whom were in the news earlier this month. The contrasting ways in which the two were treated by our law enforcement machinery is a parable that says much about the kind of society we’ve become.
Allister Pereira, 25, is the son of a rich businessman. On November 12, 2006, driving under the influence of alcohol, he ran over 15 labourers sleeping on the pavement on Carter Road, killing seven. By any yardstick, this was an open-and-shut case of a man killing seven people.
But in the five-and-a-half years from November 2006 to January 2012, Pereira spent exactly one month in jail. In April 2007, a sessions court convicted him, awarding him six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs5 lakh. It’s not clear what verdict Pereira was expecting, but he chose to challen ge this judgment in the Bombay High Court. The high court upheld the conviction, but extended his sentence to three years. It also lambasted the manner in which the Mumbai police went about investigating the crime, and criticised its tardiness in submitting the report. We can’t say for sure why the Mumbai police was lacklustre in its investigation; we can’t say why the cops were so slow in filing their report; and we can’t say why the sessions court handed out a sentence that was found to be too lenient by the higher court; but the reasons are not difficult to guess.
Pereira, who was out on bail, appealed to the Supreme Court. This January, the apex court upheld his sentence of three years, and cancelled his bail bond. Pereira surrendered, and finally, more than five years after his crime, it looks like he will serve out his punishment.
Cut to Arun Ferreira, a 40-year-old social worker. Ferreira was picked up by the police in Nagpur on May 8, 2007. He was charged with conspiracy to plant bombs, and over the years, slapped with nearly a dozen cases, ranging from murder, to attacking the police, to burning a railway engine. In September 2011, he was acquitted of all the charges.  But the moment he stepped out of the jail, he was illegally re-arrested by cops in plain clothes, and charged in two more cases. He again rotted in jail till January, when, after the police failed to produce a shred of evidence against him for any of the charges — he was acquitted on 10 of the 11 cases and given bail on one — he was allowed to go home. In all, from May 2007 to January 2012, Ferreira was made to spend four years and eight months in jail even though there was no evidence of him having committed a single crime.
The contrast with Pereira couldn’t be starker. Why would the state let a spoilt brat who killed seven people, live in freedom for five years, and in another case, imprison for almost five years, on false charges, a man who has been working for the welfare of the most marginalised of Indians — the poor, the working class, the Dalits?
So what exactly was Ferreira’s crime, which, in the eyes of the state, merited a far more stringent prosecution than Pereira’s? Well, the police believe him to be a Naxal sympathiser. Yet strangely enough, they cannot put him in jail for being a Naxal sympathiser. Why not? This may come as news to many people, but according to the Constitution of India, a citizen has the right to believe in any ideology, and believing in Naxalism or Maoism is no crime, so long as he or she does not indulge in violence or break any law.
Ferreira, as a matter of fact, is a self-proclaimed Naxal sympathiser, but there is no evidence linking him to any act of Naxal violence. Nevertheless, his work and his ideology — especially the idea of rights and entitlements that he was busy transmitting to the downtrodden — was not palatable to those who control the levers of power in this country. What if more and more of the poor and marginalised start fighting for their rights — as has been happening in Jaitapur, in Kudankulam, in Kalinga Nagar, in Manesar, and in the mineral belt stretching from Chhattisgarh to Bihar to Orissa?
Well, then Indian democracy might actually start functioning a little, and for the corporate-funded political class that plays musical chairs in New Delhi every five years, that’s a scary proposition. Hence the importance of keeping the Ferreiras in jail. According to media reports, the number of political prisoners in Maharashtra has gone up from 40 in October 2010, to 125 in December 2011. And as the global economy worsens, putting greater pressure on third world natural resources and entitlements of the poor, the crackdown on rights-oriented activists (as opposed to the welfare-oriented ‘CSR activists’ whom big business and the state love) is only set to get worse. As of today, it’s the Pereiras who call the shots in India, and they don’t want any Ferreiras running wild in the countryside.