Development Dreams: Newsletter #37

An early newsletter this week, since I am about travel.


In today’s news, the Government of India has blocked FCRA clearance for Greenpeace India, effectively ending any foreign funding for the organization while the ban stands. It may not mean much, since Greenpeace gets about 70% of its funding from within India and this ruling will probably help them raise more funds within India. In any case, the ban is temporary rather than permanent. It’s part of a cat and mouse game that the current government is playing with “five star activists,” i.e., anyone who disagrees with their neo-liberal agenda to turn India into one giant commodity market. Here’s a brief rundown of the basic facts:

  1. If you prefer that forests not be cut down, you’re anti-development.

  2. If you prefer that people have a basic safety net, you are socialist and anti-development.

  3. If you prefer that minorities are treated fairly, you are sickular and anti-development.

Underlying all of these developments is an ideological shift that has completely enthralled the ruling classes. The basic tenets of the new ideology are:

  1. Land, water, forests, food are all commodities and should be traded on a global market with a safety net for national security purposes.

  2. The economy can’t support the majority of farmers, tribals and others who lived on those lands and drank that water before they became commodities. They need productive employment elsewhere.

  3. Freeing up that labor for the manufacturing and service industries makes much better use of their only fungible resource, i.e., their bodies.

By the way, this isn’t some Marxist epic in which the small guy is shafted by the big guy. The farmer is in on the game, especially the somewhat wealthy farmer. He (and it’s mostly a he) installs a bore well on his property and uses government subsidized electricity to suck water out from under his neighbors farms and then sells it back to them at a premium. I believe this new model is called local entrepreneurship; if you do it well, you could easily find yourself on the front page of a microcredit catalog. Landless laborers are the worst off; their customary relationships with their landlords - very exploitative to start with - are now commoditized, which is why they may look for menial work in towns for part of the year and come back to the village for the harvest. They too go to the highest bidder. Friends of mine who own factories complain about the chronic lack of labor and consequent retention problems. In one generation, i.e., the twenty odd years after liberalization, we have turned into a nation of hustlers who are looking out only for themselves. That’s the true meaning of development.

It doesn’t matter if it’s honest or corrupt, for both of those are minor tweaks on a larger ideological shift. While a lot of the protest against the selling of forests and factories has focused on personal deal making and corruption, the real problem is structural. From the earth's perspective, it doesn't care whether you cut down a forest and hand over the trees to your uncle’s timber factory or you let logging companies bid fairly and extract the highest price. The issue is about treating forests as a commodity and only secondarily about who gets to exploit the commodity.

Meanwhile, development continues to attract people at the highest levels of power. The previous prime minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh was a great developmentalist. His successor, Mr. Modi, jumped on development as the cornerstone of his personal and public persona, using the development mantra to successfully shed an unsavory association with communalism. Mr. Modi isn’t alone; there’s a large class of Indians who consider development to be a birthright. The greatest insult these days is to be called anti-development.

What is that birthright? There’s no analytic answer, since the concept of development plays to our emotions, which means people think in images and feelings. The image in people’s minds is that of an Indian Singapore or Shanghai: tall buildings, sweeping highways, clean roads, orderliness. These are dream like images that can’t be shaken by any exposure to reality. Bollywood tries it’s best to package those dreams in digestible chunks, adding to the ubiquity of the dream. There’s no alternative to this dream anywhere, certainly not from the left, which took its cues about forests from horrendous Stalinist and Maoist visions of development.