Outlook India 2010-10-11

Pretty Prose And Guns From Cloud Cuckoo Land

It’s difficult not to admire the perseverance and passion of Arundhati Roy, writer and born rebel. More so when she packages her attacks on the basics of the country—she projects the Indian State as an enemy of the people—in beautiful English prose. In her 18-page essay, The Trickledown Revolution (Sept 20), she wails: “Sometimes it seems very much as though those who have a radical vision for a newer, better world do not have the steel it takes to resist the military onslaught, and those who have the steel do not have the vision.” So, after denouncing corporations as the devil incarnate, the Indian State as a lackey of these capitalists, and describing the government’s operation to curb the violence in the Maoist-affected areas as “a war on the people”, and giving everyone else, including the Maoists, a dressing down, Arundhati plays god for all anti-nationals—from Kashmir to Manipur to Dantewada—who have waged war against civil society. But she wears a distorted lens. Look at the descriptions she provides us. The policemen, she wants to convince us, are themselves at war with the government—for they got their jobs by paying heavy bribes—and the officers are making merry while sending the boys to die. You think even commandants have lost their lives leading the ranks against the Maoists or other extremist groups? Perish the thought. All she can discern in this spectrum is that police personnel are “poor khaki trash, cannon fodder in the Rich Man’s war”. And what does she think of the killings by the Maoists? Bad, but this is the Janus-faced morality of “revolutionary violence...that we can expect more of in a war zone in which tactics trump rectitude and make the world a worse place”. Bravo, Che Guevara of the 21st century! She has all the statistics on how well the security forces are armed. As for the Maoists, their resistance of this “war” is conducted using a few arms snatched from the police. Obviously, she has not heard or read about their links to arms-smuggling rings and terrorist groups in Pakistan and Nepal, and about their extortionist demands from local businessmen, industrialists and contractors. Apologists for an armed struggle against the Indian state somehow fail to realise that these wars can only harm the poor, whom them claim to represent and fight for. Obviously, too, there is no meeting point between Arundhati’s vision and the way we, ordinary people not so blessed with the gift of words, see the Maoist and other revolts, whether in Manipur, Nagaland, Kashmir or Assam. Having debunked our system, she has no problem sympathising with the Maoists. “The Maoists do not believe that the present system can deliver justice. The thing is that an increasing number of people are beginning to agree with them.” According to her, the democracy we have is not “genuine” because “ordinary people” cannot even hope for justice. And how is the Indian State an enemy of the people and “waging war on the poor”? Industrialisation, for her, is the new capitalism-imperialism in action. Just as the old colonialists grabbed the resources of Asia and Africa to fatten themselves, the new capitalists are grabbing the resources that belong to the poor—their water, trees, forests, mineral-rich land—to make profits. Therefore, she prescribes an Arcadia—no mining, no interference with the flow of rivers, no dams, no displacement of people to make way for infrastructure, no tampering with nature. How distorted this vision is can be seen in many of her examples. Why should you mine bauxite? Mining bauxite is dangerous—because aluminium is made using enormous quantities of power and that means further damage to the environment. And, says Arundhati, what is aluminium used for? To make weapons, so that the poor can be kept suppressed using the very things they own—the bauxite buried in Niyamgiri. No mention of the fact that aluminium is a major component in airplanes, cars, engines, domestic utensils for the poor, a hundred other things. Not only is her rural Arcadia a myth, it is dangerous too. It may be that tribals could once have made a living out of the forests. But for centuries, they have lived on the margins, even before this recent spell of industrialisation. When the rest of India was enjoying great prosperity in the middle ages, the tribals remained poor. And Arundhati says the wisdom of sustainable lifestyles will come from the tribals! Nor is the modern state all that cruel, “waging war against its own poor”. No one claims that it is a perfect state, or that democracy means justice overnight. Democracy by itself does not guarantee justice and growth. It only provides the framework within which different groups can peacefully struggle for their advancement and for justice. Arundhati is also wrong when she characterises the Indian media as a handmaiden of corporations. If that were so, Outlook, which is owned by a business house, would not have published her denunciation of the Indian State as a tool for exploitation by business. Big business houses and many successful businessmen—Ramalinga Raju of Satyam, for instance—have been exposed in the media. Furthermore, the media itself works to resist business pressure and political corruption. It is the media that has fought against corruption, even within itself—like with the recent paid news virus. When the struggle against Tata Motors began at Singur, it was this very media that Arundhati decries that gave it full exposure. Farmers are genuinely agitated at being denied a fair share of the benefits from entrepreneurs who use their land. But the problem does not need a war in order to be solved. Governments in India have to seek the people’s mandate every five years. Governments in the states and at the Centre have been removed by the collective exercise of the vote. Leading businessmen have lost elections very often. If governments are under the thumb of Big Business, many regulations on business that exist today would not have been there. However, there’s no formula to make democracy completely tamper-proof. Medha Patkar and Arundhati fought against the damming of the Narmada. But the people of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh did not agree with what they said against the dams. These agitations, however, highlighted one genuine problem—rehabilitation of the displaced. Governments are now obliged to demonstrate rehabilitation package in advance, before projects are sanctioned. That’s how democracy works. India’s poverty—or that of other countries—is not the result of the emergence of corporations. It has been there for centuries. Europe was, till the 19th century, desperately poor. Industrialisation and empire-building brought wealth and democratic pressures forced the rich to share that wealth and today, in most of Europe, there is a welfare state. Look at the high standard of living in the Scandinavian countries, which never had colonies to begin with. It was technology and democracy that brought about this change—not guns. Activists like Arundhati who hold up daily the statistical reality of 70 per cent of the people living below the poverty line ignore the reality that this poverty is not the result of any deprivation now. India’s population has almost quadrupled since independence; yet, the average lifespan has improved, the levels of maternal and infant deaths have gone down, though they are still high enough to cause concern, the level of literacy has improved, especially female literacy. Poverty is central to public discourse in India. There is a plethora of schemes aimed at poverty alleviation. Of course, given the imperfections of the system, and corruption, they do not always give the desired results. Some state governments may have a poor record in PDS, for instance. But the bjp government in Chhattisgarh has shown how pds can be run efficiently. Similarly, in Gujarat, thousands of small check-dams have come up under Narendra Modi’s government, always a target for attack by activists like Arundhati. While Arundhati and others decry the building of infrastructure like expressways, railways, ports, airports, power grids and so on, they ignore how employment—skilled and semi-skilled—is being created in these areas. Even five-star hotels and tourism generate jobs. Activists who decry industrialisation have no answer when you ask them how the burgeoning population will find jobs if enterprises do not come forward to take risks and invest widely. The tribes in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Kalahandi, whom Arundhati extols for their “wisdom” in sustainable livelihood, are the ones who suffer most where there are no alternative jobs. Mines and industries have brought modern education, healthcare and technology, even though not in adequate quantities. The 600 million users of mobile phones in India, many among the lowest income groups, like repairmen, vegetable vendors, fishermen—in fact, some 200 million people in rural areas alone—uphold the benefits of technology that have come only through industrialisation. The 40 lakh self-help groups in the country, each comprising 15 to 20 poor village women, are a declaration to activists like Arundhati that their apology for armed struggle against the state is regressive and can only harm the poor they claim to support. We need to struggle, for a better life for all. But it can only be achieved through more technology, more enterprise and more democratic devolution of real power. Most of all, through the aspiration for a better life, not a throwback to the old one. The choice is between a functioning democracy (with all its warts) and Maoist anarchy. “If the Maoists ever come to power, the first person we (read Maoists) would hang would probably be you,” Arundhati writes. For once, she is right; the anarchists she extols have no use for dissent. But can one dream of Arcadia without free thought?