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Churning the Earth: The Making of a Global India

October 2012: Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari have put together a critique of an extremely flawed economic developmental model that has been driven by powerful forces for over a century, from John Maynard Keynes to Dr. Manmohan Singh. It deals as much with human nature as with economics. And, while human nature has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, the magnified, collateral damage of globalised economics now threatens the life support systems of countless species, including (Homo sapiens).

Taking us through the chronology of globalisation, the authors have taken pains to detail the ascent of economic ambition in Indians and the inequality inherent in that misadventure: “We are on different coaches of a long accelerating, burning train. The few air-conditioned coaches in the front are insulated for the time being from the fire that is blazing in the coaches at the back, where the majority of the passengers travel. Some of the coaches have already derailed (think of the 200,000 farmer suicides). However, the wealthy people in the A.C. coaches want the engine staff to run the train even faster... There is very little doubt that the reforms, which began in the early 1990s (though many of the policy trends date to the 1980s) have brought great material benefits to the richest 10 to 25 per cent of India’s population.”

The book is easy to read. It is also easy to understand: “India’s drinking water crisis is severe today. At least part of the blame for this has to be shouldered by the bottled water industry. It has contributed both to falling water tables and ground water depletion as well as to its pollution across many regions of the country... There are infinitely simpler ways of addressing people’s drinking water requirements than shipping fancy mineral water from across the oceans in oil-guzzling vessels or mining out and polluting the groundwater of poor rural communities.”

Correctly identifying ‘reforms’ as the cause of the widening rich-poor divide, they explain: “As apprehensively acknowledged on occasions by the Prime Minister himself, the reforms have been socially divisive. The votaries of the reforms, however, argue that they have served not only the interests of the rich, they have answered – or perhaps will eventually answer – the needs of the poor as well. This is what gives the reform process its moral legitimacy. It is this contention we take issue with.”

It is a complicated canvas, but the dice is loaded in favour of those who control markets. The authors know this and try to pin down specifics as best they can: “Another consequence of the entry of FIIs into India is that they now own significant chunks of Indian firms. Between 1993 and 2007, while net FII inflows into India added up to $70.8 billion, their market value was $251.5 billion by December 2007... FII’s held 37 per cent of the free-float shares in the top 1,000 firms listed on the Mumbai Stock Exchange.” And just in case you still don’t quite get it, the authors succinctly suggest: “Greed in this case, as in so many others, actually undercuts industrial capitalism.”

Tearing into the like of Coca Cola and Lavasa, the Tata’s Dhamra Port, Monsanto and more, the authors quote example after example of the misdemeanors of commercial organisations that privatised profits and left the public to pay in terms of both usurped resources and environmental degradation.

This is a book that everyone involved with public and developmental policy must read. Equally those affected by such policies should read this book. The gargantuan task ahead of us prompts individuals to take a resigned, almost defeatist, “what can I do about it all” attitude to the massive tearing down of the social and environmental canvas in which our lives are plotted, but this apathy they suggest will be a disaster: “We are rapidly approaching the moment when the choices before us would be stark: an institutionalised, hazardous corporate totalitarianism and indefinite war with the people and the earth, or the consensual emergence of a radical ecological democracy which will leave everyone with a semblance of hope. The middle ground between these two choices is already beginning to vanish.”

The one discussion that has been inadequately touched upon probably merits more plain talking, is whether it is only the ruthless rich who are punching holes in a sinking Titanic, or whether those at the “receiving end of the environmental excesses and economic exclusion” are also now playing a part in tearing the tapestry of nature, albeit out of desperation. More importantly, will the direct participation of the underprivileged in decision-making, justifiably advocated by both authors, be able to avert the double-barreled attack on our ecological integrity if both rich and poor set upon ecosystems that had evolved without the inexpert touch of human hands?

Churning the Earth: The Making of a Global India
Author: Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari
Publisher: Penguin Books
Hard cover, 394 pages
Price: Rs. 699

Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal, Vol XXXXII No. 5, October 2012

 
 
 

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