Old-style corruption better?

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 15 May 2006

A journalist from the International Herald Tribune asked my opinion about what he called "modern forms of lobbying" that us multinationals operating in India engaged in. He was investigating how these companies were bringing their skills of influencing policy -- from 'planting' stories in the media, to 'engaging' academics and scientists to counter debates, to 'lobbying' legislators -- to India.

My reply was simple: firstly, cash transactions are still part of the game but more covert. Secondly, given a choice between the new and the old, I would prefer old-fashioned, Indian-style corruption. This is because direct financial dealings, however distasteful, cannot be hidden for long. But this us -refined influence game will erode our public institutions, subvert public decision-making and fatally undermine democracy.

It is important to learn and analyse how democracy is 'worked' in the us. Robert F Kennedy Jr explains some of this in his writings on the Bush administration. Kennedy, a politician and lawyer, is the son of the charismatic Democrat senator, who was assassinated.

What he reveals is chilling. We know in American electoral politics, industry and other interest groups make donations to candidates. These donations are seemingly not corrupt, because they are given openly (not Indian-style cash under the table). Unfortunately, the truth lies elsewhere. Kennedy describes, in detail, the corporate takeover of the us and how this undermines issues of public health and policy.

The process is deliberate. The corporate world knows that policy is personnel. So, the first step in dismantling public policy formulation is to ensure 'their' people are put in charge. This has been done in institution after institution, with devastating impacts. For instance, when a mining industry person is given charge of public land policy or a coal industry person is put in place to decide energy policy, you cannot expect unbiased outcomes.

Another step is to recruit scientists, who Kennedy calls 'biostitutes' -- prostitutes to serve industrial interests. He describes in detail how this was done again and again in cases concerning public health. For instance, in deciding how much arsenic should be acceptable in drinking water, how much mercury Americans should ingest through fish, how to regulate effluents from pig-farms, industrial-style, which release a toxic mix of chemicals. In this case, Kennedy documents how a government scientist found an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria near pig farms, which was making people sick. He was gagged, his studies buried and his public appearances cancelled. This, Kennedy says, was done because of lobbying by the National Pork Producers Council.

In the fight for a voice, all tricks are used. One such case concerns a bill introduced in the us Senate in late 2001, which would require chemical plants to reduce their inventories of highly toxic and dangerous substances. The first assault came with industry associations lobbying senators against the proposed law. Money poured in -- the chemical industry donated over us $38 million to Republicans and spent another us $30 million on lobbying. To 'soften' public servants, money was paid to benefit funds; suddenly there was a spate of articles and editorials condemning the legislation as subversive. Right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute produced briefs justifying the opposition. The bill was killed.

The most devastating fact is that this 'corporate cronyism' can take root because democratic institutions have been seriously compromised. Kennedy finds that even his party members -- Democrats -- need to play the game, because they need corporate money for elections. He also finds that the media has been systematically taken over and its role as a public informer been compromised. This has been done through pincer-like actions. Firstly, the law that regulated media as a public trust -- mandating it to publicise different points of view -- was abolished. Till the 1960s, under the Fairness Doctrine, advertisers of gas-guzzling automobiles, for instance, had to provide rebuttal time for public-interest advocates to debate the impact of wasteful fuel use. But in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, supported by the media, changed this. Secondly, media has been consolidated, is often owned by industry: its business is expensive so that money rules. Stories on corporate shenanigans are buried or journalists fired, finds Kennedy.

The fact is that India is currently standing on a precipice. Our institutions of governance -- particularly our political institutions -- have been so weakened that we are ready for the same 'corporate takeover'. If you don't believe me, visit the official homepage of the Indian Planning Commission, click on the report of the innocuously termed Indo- us ceo forum. Its members included the most respected from India -- from Ratan Tata to Nandan Nilekani. Read the report and its action agenda for the Indian government on everything -- agriculture, food processing, intellectual property rights, real estate, education. No surprises there, you will say. After all, all industry -- Indian or foreign -- has a wish list.

But wishes are commands when lobbies, not goverment, rule. For instance, the report directs that Indian government must "eliminate policies like the discriminatory special excise duty on carbonated drinks". In the same budget, the duty was reduced. The group included the head of soft drink major, us multinational Pepsico. No surprises there.

Read Kennedy. Get angry. Don't allow this takeover of India. This is not a us makeover we can afford.

-- Sunita Narain

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