An Event Review: India Rising: An entrepreneurial revolution? at the Frontline Club.

By Sam Hawke

Last Thursday, a friend (one of the editors of this blog, Sam Bright) and I attended a talk on India’s economy at the Frontline Club in West London. The discussion was billed as centring on Oliver Balch’s new book, India Rising. As its title suggests, it expresses a particular view of India’s development trajectory.

Having not read the book, there’s an obvious limit to what I can say about it. But Balch’s own remarks at the discussion, and some of his similarly-minded co-panellist Ruth Kattumuri (from the London School of Economics), appear to follow a predictable trend. Anecdotes are casually traded as to the ‘capitalist streak’ in ordinary Indians, their supposedly indomitable capacity to achieve success from the mires of severe poverty. Personal stories as to entrepreneurialism, both successful and social, are taken to provide the economic underpinnings to the world’s largest, most vibrant democracy.

The talk was billed as a discussion of precisely this vision of India, precisely the kind of vision we saw in the government’s ‘Incredible India’ public-relations campaign. One of the panellists joked about the problems of releasing a book with the title India Rising at a time of lower-than-expected growth rates (a supposedly paltry five or so percent). But as the talk went on, it became very clear that these kinds of problems were not to be the real topic of discussion.

Members of the audience, alongside another of the panellists, Robert Wallis (from the Panos photo agency), recounted the 800 million people for whom India’s economic growth is not simply some failed opportunity, but a complete impossibility. Millions and millions remain in desperate poverty whilst Western governments applaud the development of the country’s nuclear programme. Everyone knows of the hundreds of thousands of farmers who have committed suicide over the last few decades in economic desolation. This is whilst the 100 of India’s richest people own assets that amount to a quarter of the country’s GDP, and the 300 million of its urban middle classes reap the benefits of the intermittently lauded growth rates. These remain horrifying symptoms of India’s violent surge for economic prosperity at the expense of the majority. This, for much of the discussion’s audience, seemed a more important topic for serious debate.

To counter the anecdotal obscurantism of popular portrayal, mention was made of the horrors of India’s mining industry. A number of claims were made. That the henchmen of mining companies start fires under villages lying on coal fields so as to steal the land out from under their inhabitants by the ruse of health and safety. That those in mining communities have a few seconds between cooking and eating before the food they’ve prepared becomes caked in particles of coal or bauxite. That the mining of uranium is done by hand, as the mining companies have found it far more efficient for workers to lose the suits that would provide them with a modicum of protection. That the irradiation spreads, as the workers return home, to their families leaving behind the human wreckage of birth defects and cancers.

Few hear the stories of India’s tribal people

The worst of the brutality is visited on the Adivasi people, the country’s Aboriginals or ‘First Indians’. As non-Hindu animists, they live within the commodity-rich hills and mountains coveted by government and business. One member of the audience expressed disbelief that, despite being of Indian descent, he knew nothing of the Adivasi’s compelling history. Whilst more optimistic members of the panel expressed hope that the affirmative action-style measures guaranteed by India’s Constitution may provide recompense, others reminded us that – aside from plausible claims that such measures have all too often done more to entrench elite power than assist the worst-off – little has been done to protect the land and way of life of these people for whom the Indian government’s vision of development is a vile charade.

Our attention was directed towards the sheer violence of the Indian government. Aside from the occupied territory of Kashmir, which remains replete with police-army abuses (and whose lack of coverage by the international media is an act of shameful negligence), Robert Wallis relayed the fact that a civil war is currently being fought in Indian’s eastern regions of Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Orissa. These are key mining regions in which government and business have a massive stake. It is also home to abused and oppressed Adivasi and Dalit communities, themselves perpetrators and victims of the violence that has claimed over 10 000 lives thus far and thousands more forcibly displaced.

The Naxalites, a Maoist guerrilla force, themselves guilty of myriad gross human rights abuses, are fighting a massively rights-abusive police-army coalition known to rape, torture, and murder with complete impunity. The brutality of the Indian police is well-known, documented at length by respected groups such as Human Rights Watch, but the tactics employed in the state’s own ‘war on terror’ are even more incredible. The most unbelievable has been the recruiting of militia bands of violent locals, the Salwa Judum, to terrorise neighbourhoods in which a Maoist presence is suspected. Most egregiously of all, thousands of children have been turned into child soldiers for this purpose. A Supreme Court judgment in 2011 which held the government’s tactics unconstitutional came far too late.

But the Indian Supreme Court has been complicit in its own atrocities. Late last year, the Court handed down its judgment in the Tughlaqabad case. As a popular 14th century tourist attraction, its 60 000 residents now face court-ordered eviction from their homes within its walls. That’s more than the entire population of Maidenhead. It’s an unbelievable, execrable abuse of basic human rights, but it’s one for which the Court is famed.

In 2004, it evicted thousands of people from along the Yamuna River, under the guise of environmental concern. Some supposed trade-off between humanity and environmentalism is a familiar refrain: slum-dwellers have been described by the Court as “pickpockets of land”, understood as little more than waste-generators and land-fillers (or even landfill) which the government can collect, remove, and dump wherever it deems appropriate. Cases of this kind occur constantly. After hunger-strikes continuing until April, 250 people living in Nonadanga, Kolkata have been forcibly removed and dumped at the outskirts of the city in the last few months. Similarly shocking is the case concerning the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, in which the High Court permitted a pre-emptive eviction, prior to the hearing of the case of the thousands facing eviction. The Court then deliberately delayed the eventual hearing until almost all had been removed and their homes destroyed.

The Narmada dam

The largest case thus far was that of the Narmada dam. A monstrosity of a development project from its inception, condemned by an international commission of experts and (eventually) abandoned by the World Bank, the project has evicted around half a million people since the 1980s. Promises as to the rehousing and rehabilitation of the local people have been repeatedly broken. It’s not clear whether they were even sincerely made. And this is the story for almost all of the Indian government’s public-private partnerships over dam hyper-complexes across the country.

In 2002, the Indian Supreme Court refused to hear the claimants’ arguments against the further raising of the dam, cleansing the area of even more of its inhabitants. It accepted without argument the Indian government’s claims that the refugees (and I see little reason to refuse to call them refugees) would benefit from the dam’s construction and, anyway, that their sacrifice was justified by the overall good its construction would bring. It is certainly contested that the refugees would in fact benefit from the dam, and it thus far seems manifestly false. But even if you accept the also heavily contested claim that their losses will be society’s gains, it is another thing to accept the unrestrained consequentialism of human sacrifice that this view presupposes. The majority of the bench did not even think it necessary to demand that the government rehouse and rehabilitate the displaced prior to the beginning of further work, or do anything to improve what was recognised by many (including the lone dissenting judge) to be the feeble environmental analysis on which the project continued to be premised.

One panellist was keen to stress in response to questions on this issue that the Indian judiciary are at the forefront of corruption inquiries currently underway. Whilst she didn’t intend this to be ironic, it couldn’t be otherwise. One former member of the judiciary stands accused by those such as Arundhati Roy for particularly egregious conduct in this regard. In 2006, former Chief Justice Sabharwal vigorously ordered the shutting-down of Delhi’s illegal vendors, ordinary people who form vast tracts of the city’s informal economy, sustaining the lives of thousands. It later transpired that land previously accommodating these informal vendors – their shops were simply demolished – was sold to companies in which his two sons were in partnership and which proceeded to build a shopping mall in the area.

It is further interesting to note that it wasn’t until 2006 that the truth of allegations made about the judiciary could form a defence to charges of contempt of court. Even then, this is only on judicial say-so: a defendant bizarrely needs to convince the judge, before the defence can be mounted, that it is in the public interest and is acting bona fides. Regardless, this didn’t stop the journalists who reported the 2006 scandal from being sentenced to four months in prison for contempt of court in 2007 as making remarks that scandalise or tend to scandalise the reputation of the judiciary. We may note further that in 1991 the Supreme Court itself ruled that no prosecution against a sitting judge can instigated without the permission of the Chief Justice, with obvious results.

More corruption allegations involve one of the mining industry’s worst offenders, the Vedanta Corporation. In 2009, Justice Kapadia granted mining rights to a company of which Vedanta is the majority shareholder, Sterlite, despite the judge also having shares in the latter company. Once again, a prominent lawyer who publicly joined the dots and made allegations of corruption, Prashant Bhushan, was predictably forced to defend his comments on charges of contempt of court. The verdict remains to be given this year. Bhushan has been particularly reviled by the Indian judiciary for his claims that half of the last sixteen Chief Justices have been corrupt, one way or another – surely perfectly plausible allegations, especially given the corruption crisis in which much of India is embroiled. Many, including his father, Shanti Bhushan, have been courageously campaigning for greater (at least some) judicial accountability, but they face a battle against laws that render their arsenal of allegations illegal from the very beginning.

Rightward lurches are not the sole preserve of the judiciary, however. Far from embodying a vision of an all-embracing, kaleidoscopic country, the current United Progressive Alliance (a coalition of which the Indian National Congress is the majority party) government has not only pursued economic policies that seek to exclude the majority of its population from their benefits but capitalised on popular anger by directing it at the country’s very poorly-represented and much-threatened segment of Indian Muslims. Despite electoral defeats, the Bharatiya Janata Party remains all-too prominent and whose Hindu-chauvinist, Islamophobic agenda continues to degrade and demean Indian political life.

The misery facing the majority of India’s citizens isn’t without the help of the global rich, of course. One of the more obvious examples needs mentioning. Currently, the European Union is in talks with the country over potential trade agreements of various kinds. Oxfam, for one, has expressed despair over the rights-violating potential of their results. As a member of the World Trade Organisation, India is required to sign up to TRIPS, the agreements which force signatories to honour the patents of pharmaceutical companies on desperately needed medicines. The patents permit significant mark-ups on the drugs from their cost price. The prices of the patented drugs force developing countries away from the market until expiry of their patents, and which sometimes come only at the point at which the disease has done the worst of its damage or its cause is proving resistant to the now-generic medicine.

The failure by developing countries to acquire medicines in time or at all is widely accepted to be one of the key causes of the millions of poverty-related deaths every year. India nonetheless plays a significant role in the fight against disease. For its production and distribution of two-thirds of all cheap, out-of-patent medicines, India is known informally as the pharmacy of the developing world. Many worry that the result of these recent negotiations will be the inflation of the rights of multinationals to restrict supply of the medicines, and this is predicted to cause more immiseration and death for India’s worst-off. None of this appears in blithe, one-dimensional discussions of India’s economic prowess.

Much or all of what I’ve discussed can be disputed, of course, and vigorously so by those charged with the abuses catalogued. But we barely see any of it discussed at all. Once a few questions are asked, the totems of entrepreneurialism begin to appear diversionary and propagandistic. India is in a profound crisis, its government, businesses, and international allies exacerbating a steady series of human rights catastrophes. They demand a great deal more focus and, as shown by the response at the Frontline Club, a great deal more anger and concern.

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