The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities. He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants he thinks, will make a good business model.
Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with poor. A judge in Bombay called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford to live in cities shouldn’t live in them.
When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great dams and dusty quarries. Their homes occupied by hunger – and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas. They found that wars from the edge of India, in Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, had migrated to its heart. People returned to live on city streets and pavements, in hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.
The Minister said that migrants to cities were mostly criminals and “carried a kind of behavior which is unacceptable for modern cities.” The middle class admired him for his forthrightness, for having the courage to call a spade a spade. The Minister said he would set up more police stations, recruit more policemen, and put more police vehicles on the road to improve law and order.
In the drive to beautify Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, laws were passed to make the poor vanish, like laundry stains. Street vendors disappeared, rickshaw pullers lost their licenses, small shops and businesses were shut down. Beggars were rounded up, tried by mobile magistrates in mobile courts, and dropped outside the city limits. The slums that remained were screened off, with vinyl billboards that said DELHIciously Yours.
Is it a house or a home? A temple to the new India or a warehouse for its ghosts? Ever since Antilla arrived on Altamount Road in Mumbai, exuding mystery and quiet menace, things have not been the same. “Here we are,” the friend who took me there said. “Pay your respects to our new Ruler.”
Antilla belongs to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. I’d read about this most expensive dwelling ever built, the twenty-seven stories, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and six hundred servants. Nothing prepared me for the vertical lawn – a soaring, twenty-seven story wall of grass attached to a vast metal grid. The grass was dry in patches; bits had fallen off in neat rectangles. Clearly, Trickledown hadn’t worked.
But Gush-Up certainly has. That’s why in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s one hundred people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.
The word on the street (and in the New York Times) is, or at least was, that after all that effort and gardening, the Ambanis don’t live in Antilla. No one knows for sure. People still whisper about ghosts and bad luck, Vastu and feng shui. Maybe its Karl Marx’s fault. (All that cussing) Capitalism, he said, “has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, that it is like a sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the netherworld whom he has called up by his spells.”
In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-International Monetary Fund “reforms” middle class –the market – live side by side with the spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty Indian rupees a day.
Mukesh Ambani is personally worth $20 billion. He holds a majority controlling share in Reliance Industries Limited, a company with a market capitalization of $47 billion and global business interests that include petrochemicals, oil, natural gas, polyester fiber, Special Economic Zones, fresh food retail, high schools,, life science research, and stem cell storage services. RIL recently bought 96 percent sharers in Infotel, a TV consortium that controls twenty-seven TV news and entertainment channels, including CNN-IBN, IBN Live, CNBC, IBN Lokmat, and ETV in almost every regional language. Infotel owns the only nation-wide license for 4G broadband, a high-speed information pipeline which, if the technology works, could be the future of information exchange. Mr. Ambani also owns a cricket team.
RIL is one of a handful of corporations that run India . . . According to the rules of the Gush-Up Gospel, the more you have, the more you can have.
The era of Privatization of Everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, as with any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India’s new mega-corporations, Tatas, Jindals, Essar, Reliance, Sterlite, are those that have managed to muscle their way up to the head of the spigot that is spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It’s a dream come true for businessmen – to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.
The other major source of corporate wealth comes from their land banks. All over the world, weak, corrupt local governments have helped Wall Street brokers, agribusiness corporations and Chinese billionaires to amass huge tracts of land. (Of course this entails commandeering water too.) In India the land of millions of people is being acquired and handed over to private corporations for “public interest” – for Special Economic Zones, infrastructure projects, dams, highways, car manufacture, chemical hubs, and Formula One racing. (The sanctity of private property never applies to the poor.) As always, local people are promised that their displacement from their land and the expropriation of everything they ever had is actually part of an employment generation. But by now we know the connection between GDP growth and jobs is a myth. After twenty years of ‘growth,” 60 percent of India’s workforce is self-employed, and 90% of India’s labor force works in the unorganized sector.
Post-Independence, right up to the 1980s, people’s movements, ranging from the Naxalites to Jataprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti, were fighting for land reforms, for redistribution of land from feudal landlords to landless peasants. Today any talk of redistribution of land or wealth would be considered not just undemocratic but lunatic. Even the most militant movements have been reduced to a fight to hold on to what little land people still have. The millions of landless people, the majority of them Dalits and Adivasis, driven from their villages, living in slums and shanty colonies in small towns and megacities, do not figure even in the radical discourse.
As Gush-Up concentrates wealth onto the tip of a shining pin on which our billionaires pirouette, tidal waves of money crash through the institutions of democracy –the courts, the parliament –as well as the media, seriously compromising their ability to function in the ways they are meant to. The noisier the carnival around elections, the less sure we are that democracy really exists.
Each new corruption scandal that surfaces in India makes the last one look tame. In the summer of 2011 the 2G spectrum scandal broke. We learned that corporations has siphoned away $40 billion of public money by installing a friendly soul as the minister of communications and information who grossly underpriced the licenses for 2G telecom spectrums and illegally auctioned them to his buddies. The taped telephone conversations leaked to the press and showed how a network of industrialists and their front companies, ministers, senior journalists, and a TV anchor were involved in facilitating this daylight robbery. The tapes were just an MRI that confirmed a diagnosis that people had made long ago.
The privatization and illegal sale of telecom spectrum does not involve war, displacement, and ecological devastation. The privatization of India’s mountains, rivers and forests does. Perhaps because it does not have the uncomplicated clarity of a straightforward, out-and-out accounting scandal, or perhaps because it is all being done in the name of India’s “progress,” it does not has the same resonance with the middle classes.
In 2005 the state governments of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jdarkhand signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding (MOU’s) with a number of private corporations, turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore, and other minerals for a pittance, defying even the warped logic of the Free Market. (Royalties to the government ranged between 0.5 and 7 percent.)
Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MOU for the construction of an integrated steel plant in Bastar with Tata Steel, the Saklwa Judum, a vigilante militias inaugurated. The government said it was a spontaneous uprising of local people who were fed up with “repression” by Maoist guerillas in the forest. It turned out to be a ground-clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidized by mining corporations. In the other states similar militias were created, with other names. The prime minister announced the Maoists were the “Single Largest Security Challenge in India.” It was a declaration of war.
On January 2, 2006, in Kalinganagar, in the neighboring state of Orissa, perhaps to signal the seriousness of the government’s intention, ten platoons of police arrived at the site of another Tata Steel plant and opened fired on villagers who had gathered there to protest what they felt was inadequate compensation for their land. Thirteen people, including one policeman, were killed and thirty-seven injured. Six years have gone by, and though the villages remain under siege by armed policemen, the protest has not died.
Meanwhile in Chhattisgarh, the Salwa Judum burned, raped, and murdered its way through hundreds of forest villages, evacuating six hundred villages and forcing 50,000 people to come into police camps and 350,000 people to flee. The chief minister announced that those that did not come out of the forests would be considered “Maoist terrorists.” In this way, in parts of modern India plowing fields and sowing seeds came to be defined as terrorist activity. Eventually the Salwa Judum’s atrocities succeeded only in strengthening the resistance and swelling the ranks of the Maoist guerilla army. Two hundred thousand paramilitary troops were deployed across Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, and West Bengal.
After three years of ‘low-intensity conflict” that has not managed to ‘flush’ the rebels out of the forest, the central government has declared that it will deploy the Indian army and air force. In India we don’t call this war. We call it “Creating a Good Investment Climate. Thousands of soldiers have already moved in. A brigade headquarters and airbases are being readied. One of the biggest armies in the world is now preparing its Terms of Engagement to “defend” itself against the poorest, hungriest, most malnourished people in the world. We only await the declaration of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which will give the army legal impunity and the right to kill “on suspicion.” Going by the tens of thousands of unmarked graves and anonymous cremation pyres in Kashmir, Manipur, and Nagaland, we might judge it to be a very suspicious army indeed.
While the preparations for deployment are being made, the jungles of Central India continue to remain under siege, with villagers frightened to come out or to go to market for food or medicine. Hundreds of people have been jailed, charged with being Maoists under draconian, undemocratic laws. Prisons are crowded with Adivasi people, many of whom have no idea what their crime is. . .
We hear about the ecological and social engineering of Central India only because of the mass insurrection and the war. The government gives out no information. The MOUs are all secret. Some sections of the media have done what they could to bring public attention to what is happening in Central India. However, most of the Indian mass media is made vulnerable by the fact that the major share of their revenues come from corporate advertisements. If that is not bad enough, now the line between the media and big business has begun to blur dangerously. As we have seen, RIL: virtually owns twenty-seven TV channels. But the reverse is also true. Some media houses now have direct business and corporate interests. For example, one of the major daily newspapers in the region, Dainik Bhaskar - and it is only one example – has 17.5 million readers in four languages, including Hindi, across thirteen states. It also owns sixty-nine companies with interests in mining, power generation, real estate, and textiles. A recent writ petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court accuses DG Power Ltd (one of the group’s companies of using “deliberate, illegal and manipulative measures” through company-owned newspapers to influence the outcome of a public hearing over an open cast coalmine. Whether or not it has attempted to influence the outcome is not germane. The point is that the media houses are in a position to do so. They have the power and the direct interests to do so. The laws of the land allow them to be in a position that lends itself to serious conflicts of interest.
There are other parts of the country from which no news comes. In the sparsely populated but militarized northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, 168 big dams are being constructed, most of them privately owned. High dams that will submerge whole districts are being constructed in Manipur and Kashmir, both highly militarized states where people can be killed for protesting power cuts. How can they stop a dam?
The most delusional dam of all is the Kalspar in Gujarat . . . the subject of serious concerns among scientists in a 2007 report. It has made a sudden comeback in order to supply water (though already a trickle in the river and poisoned with chemical effluent) to the Dholera Special Investment Region (SIR) in one of the most water-stressed zones not just in India but in the world. SIR is another name for a SEZ, a self-governed corporate dystopia of industrial parks, townships and megacities. The Dholera SIR is going to be connected to Gujarat’s other cities by a network of ten-lane highways. Where will the money for all this come from?
In January 2011 in the Mahatma (Ghandi) Mandir, Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi presided over a meeting of ten thousand international businessmen from one hundred countries. According to media reports, they pledged to invest $450 billion in Gujarat. The meeting was deliberately scheduled to take place on the tenth anniversary of the massacre of two thousand Muslims in February 2002. Modi stands accused of not just condoning but actively abetting the killing. People who watched their lived ones being raped, eviscerated, and burned alive, still wait for a gesture towards justice. But Modi has traded in his saffron scarf and vermillion forehead for a sharp business suit and hopes that a $450 billion investment will work as blood money and square the books. Perhaps it will. Big Business is backing him enthusiastically. The algebra of infinite justice works in mysterious ways.
The Dholera SIR is only one of the smaller Matryoshka dolls, one of the inner ones in the dystopia that is being planned. It will be connected to the Dehli Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), a 1,500-km-long and 300-km-wide corridor with nine mega-industrial zones, a high-speed freight line, three seaports, six airports, a six-lane intersection-free expressway, and a 4000 mw power plant. The DMIC is a collaborative venture between the governments of India and Japan and their respective corporate partners, and has been proposed by the McKinsey Global Institute.
The DMIC website says that approximately 180 million people will be “affected” by the project. Exactly how it doesn’t say. It envisages the building of several new cities and estimates that the population in the region will grow from the current 2312 million to 314 million by 2019. That’s in seven years time. When was the last time a state, a despot, or a dictator carried out a population transfer of millions of people? Can it possibly be a peaceful process?
The Indian army might need to go on a recruitment drive so that it is not taken unawares when it is ordered to deploy all over India. In preparation for its role in Central India, it publically released its updated doctrine of military psychological operations, which outlines “a planned process of conveying a message to a select target audience, to promote particular themes that result in the desired attitudes and behavior, which affect the achievement of political and military objectives of the country.” This process of “perception management,” it said, would be conducted by “using media available to the Services.”
The army is experienced enough to know that coercive force alone cannot carry out or manage social engineering on the scale that is envisioned by India’s planners. War against the poor is one thing. But for the rest of us – the middle class, whiter-collar workers, intellectuals, “opinion-makers” – it has to be “perception management.” And for this we must turn our attention to the exquisite art of Corporate Philanthropy.