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Discovery of contemporary India

Book>> Churning The Earth: The Making Of Global India• Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari • Penguin Viking, 2012 • Rs 699

 
By Avinash Kumar
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageThis book puts it all together in one place—whatever is wrong with today’s India and how we can right the wrong. But then, the expected question would be—what is so special about it? After all, many books profess to do the same. The answer is: no other book does it so beautifully by giving such a comprehensive framework and by inter-linking a range of issues so precisely and cogently. The authors have done so by using a range of compasses.

The first and foremost is a moral compass. According to the authors, it is the culture of greed embedded in our political economy that is leading to the worst form of crony capitalism we see today. Noam Chomsky is said to have remarked that the lifestyle of the Indian elite is more ostentatious than its American counterpart. Second is the compass of control over ideas, especially catch phrases. Karl Marx had argued that the ideas prevalent in a society are very often those belonging to its elite. The authors pick up terms like “globalisation”, “liberalisation”, “growth” and “development” to lay bare the ways in which meanings of these terms have been twisted and appropriated to favour a certain policy framework and then shoved down people’s throat as fait accompli.

So, “globalisation” is not about harmonious and equitable intermingling of communities and ideas across borders but about trade and transactions, and about capital and investments as per the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “Liberalisation” is not about overturning the restrictive and handing over stifling state control over resources to the vast majority. It is about “deregulation”, privatisation of country’s land, water and minerals, and handing over of basic public services such as education and health to private profiteers. “Growth” is not about increase in the productive capacity of people but an almost pathological obsession with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at the expense of who is generating that GDP and how that GDP is getting distributed. It is now widely accepted that the growth that we have been witness to in the recent years has been a “jobless growth”.

The authors also unravel the way in which “development” has meant development of a select few at the expense of three-quarters of the population. This appropriation of “development” also disguises the fact that the current model of development is actually a path to self-destruction in terms of ecological sustainability.

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This appropriation of ideas and terminologies was framed in a policy regime, which, according to the authors, was brought in when the IMF and the World Bank advised a “structural adjustment programme” to meet the country’s debt payment crisis. The standard “belt-tightening” tools—involving devaluation of the rupee and the use of deflationary fiscal and monetary policies (which reduce the economic obligations of the state vis-à-vis society)—were deployed to achieve the goals of “stabilisation”. This meant a sharp reduction in government’s fiscal deficit (excess of spending over tax collections) due to cutbacks in social spending. It would have been useful to probe this further. It would be still a worthwhile project to explore as to what makes this policy prescription tick with so many people, media, policy makers and even those self-proclaimed socialist leaders who go to the same poor after every five years. Unlike China, India did not take the industrial path to follow its growth trajectory.

It rather, rode on a unique mix of services and primitive extraction of natural resources. This was followed by a regime of finance capitalism. This means an over-reliance on portfolio investment through stock markets rather than a substantial increase in foreign direct investment. Today, India boasts of having the third largest stock market in the world. The authors point out that the rate of returns for the fly-by-night capital in countries like India (including BRICS countries) is very high compared to the developed world, making it one of the favourite destinations. At the same time, it means “that global finance profoundly influences real domestic economy (producing actual goods and services), whose activities are relegated to a lower priority.”

This essentially means not just declining investment in agriculture on which still 60 per cent of our populations is dependent, but forced evictions in the name of booming mining and real estate industries and special economic zones. This also means inaccessibility of basic necessities like food, privatisation of water (a case study of meteoric rise of bottled water industry is illustrative), health and education services, growing inequality (the top 10 per cent of the population owns 53 per cent of the country’s wealth), informalisation of labour without any social protection, and financial exclusion of the poor and the marginalised.

Moreover, an imminent ecological disaster leading to food insecurity, disruption of traditional livelihoods, water scarcity (especially groundwater depletion), soil degradation and more frequent cycles of natural disasters looms large. It is ironic that even though people are pointing out the latest Uttarakhand disaster as a case in point, parallel decisions are being taken to relax environmental clearances in the name of development.

The lack of political will to enforce even agreed regulations makes the authors argue that the current policy making is not being fair even to the rules of the game of capitalism. Hence, unlike China, which focused on developing middle-level towns to absorb the growing population by investing in their skills, or unlike social welfarism of European countries that takes care of the basic services of people universally —for example, education and health—and creates an efficient tax base to finance all these, the record of India has been dismal. Even the US government funds 44 per cent of the health costs unlike India’s less than 20 per cent. We have a fairly regressive tax system where two-thirds of our taxes are indirectly stressing the poor while giving large corporate exemptions.

The authors further argue that even in all its fairness the present model of capitalist development would not be able to provide a sustainable solution. Reforming the system from within would not suffice, and hence we need to look at other alternative models. Using the twin principles of social equity and ecological sustainability, they provide examples from the ground where communities and the civil society are busy experimenting with alternative, sustainable models. While it is indeed illuminating to look at these examples, it is also an area which demands an entire book-length study.

Despite the authors’ nod to the vulnerability of socially excluded groups and their brief engagement with alternatives like dalit capitalism, their portrayal of local communities appears idealised.

One of the great strengths of this book is its magisterial marshaling of data presented in a way which illuminates the theoretical arguments on their own. Despite its familiar terrain, the book is extremely valuable for activists and thinkers as it gives them plenty of arsenal to take the battle forward not just in terms of criticism but also in terms of possible alternatives. For the lay person, it’s the best introduction to contemporary India.

Avinash Kumar is Director, Policy, Research & Campaigns, Oxfam india

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