ABCDE of Obama’s sales pitch

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 30 November 2010

imageThere is no doubt US President Barack Obama was in India on a business trip. His recent electoral losses weighed heavily with him when he stitched up deals, reportedly worth US $10 billion, that would create about 50,000 jobs back home.

His visit and the sweetener of support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council are only the sales pitch for the many more similar deals that are on the table. In this transactional world of commerce we can hardly ask why the president of the world’s biggest and most powerful economy has been reduced to a mere commercial agent. But we can, and must, ask if the nature of the business he is offering is good for us, or even for him.

Let us be clear. When President Obama came to power, he came on the promise of change. He assured his country (and all of us in faraway lands who watched with equal excitement and expectation) that he would shake the country out of its corporate grip and would make a difference in the way America runs its economy. It was a crucial promise, made at a time when the business model his country had been exporting was revealing its nasty underbelly—from the sub-prime crisis in housing to greedy bankers.


But on this trip to India, the president was an agent of the same business model, which is not only bringing his country down economically, but also bringing the world to the precipice of a climate disaster. It is this consumption-based model of market economy that needs to be deciphered and rejected.

Let’s look at the ABCDE of what is at stake in the US-India trade relationship. American (A) priority is our agriculture—or (B) their biotechnology business. In recent years there have been hectic parleys between top US companies like Monsanto and India’s pliant and much-weakened agricultural science and policy establishment about greater access for business. Down To Earth reported (see ‘Rajasthan opens farm gates’, November 1-15, 2010) how the Rajasthan government has entered into memorandums of understanding with leading multinational biotech companies, including Monsanto, to do business in their products. It will put at their disposal agricultural universities and will assure public procurement of their seeds for distribution to farmers. This is all part of the package of the ‘evergreen’ revolution President Obama spoke about on his trip.

The fact is that the agricultural model is failing even in his country because the cost of cultivation is high. It survives because of huge subsidies. It is fed huge amounts of chemicals, which, in turn, keep the country on a toxic treadmill and cost of regulation high. Worse, it thrives on the promotion of industrial food, which is cheap and compromises on health. It is a model of agricultural growth and food that India cannot afford. We have huge number of people to feed, and we need affordable models of growing nutritionally good and environmentally sustainable food.

The ‘C’ stands for climate change and the model of wealth that will cost us the world. Obama was wooing us because of our growing, consuming middle class. We are markets for goods and services his companies can provide. But this is again part of the problem.

We are markets, but not for the same rejected US-type wares that have spoiled the world’s present and future. It is the Walmart style of retail business, which is being offered to us today. It promises cheap goods, produced at considerable pain of child labour and discounted environmental standards in other parts of the world. As this model of growth does not build inclusive economies, where producers benefit from markets, it does not create wealth for all, or even employment for some. Just consider that this much-flaunted economic model cannot even pr­ovide adequate jobs for the small and insignificant population of the US. What will it do for a billion-strong country?

The ‘D’ stands for the pharma or drug business, which is high on the India-US agenda today. The US wants us to behave ‘responsibly’ by taking patented drugs and growing its business of profit in human health. It has put us on its priority watch list and is busy using every other trick to destroy the generic and affordable medicine business in India (see ‘Choking access to drugs’, Down To Earth, August 1-15, 2010).

The question is whether this model of expensive healthcare is good for us. Remember, President Obama has faced his nemesis on the matter of health care reform, where he was only trying to get more Americans access to medical care at affordable rates not determined by the greedy alliance between insurance and drug companies. Do we need this in India?

The ‘E’ stands for the business of higher education. It will bring models of learning at costs we will not be able to afford. Worse, it will bring us the global teaching of solutions that is part of the problem and not the answer.

Will President Barack Hussein Obama now live up to his promise of change? Or will he go down in history as just another petty salesman for bad ideas?

—Sunita Narain

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