New Internationalist

A New Raj Dawning

Issue 285

The price of rice has soared - and five years of health work with indigenous people in the Nilgiris hills have been wiped out.
photo by VANESSA BAIRD

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Aid must be on the side of poor people against the causes of their poverty – not the other way around.

A new Raj dawning
At first glance, India appears to be booming. But look a little deeper.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara warns of mounting anger against the injustices that aid brings with it.

Visitors who return to India after a gap of five or more years are delighted at the changes in the country. Our major cities seem to be thriving. You can call New York within seconds. There are international pay phones on every street corner. Those who can afford it have a range of new cars to choose from – in the old days you ordered an Ambassador and waited months, even years, for it to turn up. There is even a debate about taking India off the list of ‘developing’ countries.

There is, however, no debate about the fact that 70 per cent of our population will never own a car. We have McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin Robbins’ (BR) ice cream at a dollar a scoop.

Yet 70 per cent of the population earn a dollar a day or less. At a recent seminar on globalization, Amitava Mukherjee, executive director of Actionaid India, produced some shocking statistics – all the more startling because they came from the Government of India. Before 1990, the percentage of people living below the poverty line was 31.4 per cent. It is now officially 40.1 per cent – private sources indicate that the Indian Planning Commission thinks it is now 44 per cent, although it is not prepared to make this figure public. When we talk of poverty increasing by even one per cent in India we are discussing the lives of 9 million people – the total population is 900 million.

Translated into human terms the scenario runs like this. At ACCORD, our project in the Nilgiris, Malu told me that five years ago she used to buy 20 kilos of rice from the subsidized government ration shop at 2.75 rupees per kilo. Two years ago her rice entitlement dropped to 12 kilos and the price shot up to 3.25 rupees a kilo. Around the same time all pulses or dals – the only protein affordable for the majority of the poor – shot up from 10-12 rupees to 20-30 rupees a kilo.

Soon after this, it became apparent to our medical team that many participants in the Mother and Child programme, who had been on the road to good health on our medical charts and graphs, were now slipping back. Roopa and Deva, the doctors running the ACCORD health programme, were stunned by the adverse new trends. It was as if five years of health work were being wiped out. Roopa then realized that the women who used to go to the shop to ask for a rupee’s worth of dal were now shooed off by the shopkeeper. Their one rupee could no longer buy them the handful of dal it previously did. The result – back to malnutrition.

What Roopa and Deva also saw, with sickening regularity, was that a malnourished child could not wait for the economy to ‘stabilize’. The child would simply die.

Our pro-liberalization writers inform us in definitive terms that there will be a ‘temporary’ setback which will affect the un-organized, lowest economic strata of society; the landless labourers and artisans in rural India and the non-unionized, unskilled urban workers. What the economists do not explain is how these people are to sustain themselves until the promised land finally appears, or how long the ‘temporary setback’ is scheduled to last.

Under the new economic regime we are encouraged to produce cash crops. Special subsidies and soft loans – ‘aid’ by another name – are being floated to encourage the change. So the Thanjuvar rice belt is being transformed into a giant prawn pond to export shrimps to Japan. In the Nilgiris, people are being exhorted to change from food crops to flowers for export. Farmers grow orchids and anthuriums while vegetables rot in the fields because the farmers can’t even get back the picking price. As a result, food production has dropped alarmingly in these areas.

For the poor, and the non-governmental organizations and social activists working with them, there is increasingly a feeling of despair and frustration as food prices spiral and development work seems to be going down the drain.

There is also a deep, burning anger. Non-governmental organizations feel like pawns in an international game. They know that poverty cannot be eradicated by aid which cripples. Illiterate farmers, who may not understand the intricacies of structural adjustment, have perceived the inherent threat. They have started to act on their anger. In Karnataka they have attacked Cargill (one of the world’s largest seed multinationals) and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Goa, activists led locals successfully to drive out Du Pont.

And politicians, ever-shrewd, are picking up on this anger. It is easy to rekindle memories of the Freedom Struggle. The images of 200 years of bondage are being invoked again with powerful rhetoric. People perceive the beginning of a different kind of economic domination – a new Raj dawning. But I suspect it will be a long march before we achieve freedom at midnight.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a regular contributor to the NI and works for ACCORD.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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