issue 244 - June 1993
New World Ordure
The real human-rights villains are not jailers or executioners
but rather Western governments who preside over the new economic order.
So says Mari Marcel Thekaekara, who has to watch their victims die.
As a 16-year-old Calcutta schoolgirl I wept for the Jewish people when I read Leon Uris’s Exodus. Millions of people also died on the streets of Calcutta in 1943-44. But while Hitler’s Holocaust is still vividly remembered, the Bengal Famine was and is barely mentioned – it was just an historical fact I tucked away in my mind for exams, even though millions of my own people had died so horrendously scarcely ten years before my birth.
Millions died begging for food in Bengal because Churchill’s British Government diverted grain, making it impossible for any but the wealthy to buy what rice was left. These people were killed by Churchill’s policies as surely as those Jewish Europeans were killed by Hitler’s. What is it that makes the world agitate about one set of human rights and not another? Did the starving Bengalis not have as much right to live as the Nazis’ hapless victims?
Who decides that a hue and cry must be made about one kind of atrocity while another gets away unpublicized? Who sets the agenda which sees imprisonment and torture as human-rights violations while torture and death by starvation are not? And what gives some countries the right to become ‘international’ arbiters, ignoring the blood on their own hands?
The poor have never been a priority. Not now, not ever. History is in the process of repeating itself as the New World Order takes over. A new insidious form of colonialism is engulfing the world. It is more dangerous in its new manifestation. Earlier, the enemy was visible. Now the global takeover by powerful Western nations has the consent and active participation of legitimate, elected governments in Third World countries.
The World Bank and the IMF dictate the terms through the process of structural adjustment, the newest obscenity in the development dictionary. Open your markets, they decree. Cut public spending. Remove subsidies on health and food. (If people die in the process, population growth will be tamed; an added bonus, that.) Produce more goods for export. Do all these things without fail or we will order sanctions against you.
India has just started down this road. We have opted for economic liberalization, privatization and free markets after four and a half decades of Nehruvian socialism – in spite of the disastrous results evident in Asian, African and Latin American countries. So last month we had, for the first time in our history, a Budget which openly and unashamedly pandered to the rich. Refrigerators, cars and colour TV sets became cheaper. But ration rice, the absolute basic necessity in India, became more expensive. The mainstream press hailed the Budget. It was lauded as bold, imaginative, innovative. Yet it pandered to just 3 per cent of the population while offering the remaining 97 per cent just desolation and despair.
A top-of-the-line colour TV had its price slashed by 2,500 rupees ($80) and advertisements now urge the rich to buy their second TV for the kids’ bedroom. Meanwhile the price of a kilo of rice went up by 0.75 rupees, forcing the poorest to buy less rice for the family. An unskilled casual labourer in a tea estate here in the Nilgiris, for example, gets about 800 rupees ($25) a month and spends over 700 of this on food alone. The person who can afford a colour TV is likely to earn over 10,000 rupees ($320) a month and spend less than one-third of that on food.
So, proudly, even exultantly, the Indian Government has announced that in its new economic dispensation the poor will have to subsidize the rich. But the poor are already feeling the effects of economic liberalization and structural adjustment. Here in the Nilgiris Doctors Roopa and Deva, who have been running a community-health programme since 1987, are in despair because their growth-monitoring charts are showing children under five who had just made it out of malnutrition slipping back because their parents are buying less food. After five years of health education, of trying to get people to eat dal (pulses, the only protein available to the poor) the price of dal has become prohibitive. ‘We used to go to the shop and ask for a rupee worth of dal,’ reports Kali, a tribal health worker. ‘But now the shopkeeper gets angry and tells us to get lost.’
‘Never mind dal,’ she continues. ‘Before we used to fill our stomachs with rice. Now you go to bed every night feeling hungry, wishing you had just that little bit more which would give you the satisfaction of a full stomach.’ The indigenous people face a chronic protein deficiency anyway because their diet consists of bulk rice and little else. Now that they will have less rice as well, it will take its toll on their health, especially that of women and children.
We are already seeing children die because of poverty and malnutrition (see box). Measles, diarrhoea, a chest infection – minor ailments which a healthy child easily wards off can wipe out the malnourished child. But will our government accept moral responsibility for the deaths of these children as it slashes the price of TV sets and boosts that of rice? Or will the World Bank and the IMF who dictate the terms of structural adjustment own up to the blood on their hands?
Why are these starvation deaths not on the human-rights agenda? Why is there no pressure on the institutions which caused their deaths?
Instead the West decides which are the ‘fundamental’ human rights – and decides, for example, that individual freedom is what matters most, even if that means the freedom to exploit others.
By the same logic, so long as there is a free world, children in the Third World will continue to starve to death so that their counterparts in the West can consume up to 20 times more resources ‘freely’. And in the New World Order coercion is permissible when it becomes necessary for the West to expand markets if it is to maintain its lifestyle.
There are signs of revolt, thank God. Amazingly, unexpectedly, farmers in India have been alerted to what the new GATT agreement threatens to do to them. Under the agreement farmers would no longer have the right to replant their own seeds if these had been patented by multinationals. The plan is diabolical and would cripple our entire agricultural sector.
Farmers’ unions throughout this vast country have managed to impress on their members the urgency of the situation. The godown (warehouse) and office of a major multinational was ransacked by demonstrators in Bangalore. Of course violence of this sort by mere farmers will not be tolerated and the Government has threatened to take action. Only institutionalized violence is permissible.
The people will prevail. They always have, in the face of tremendous odds. But a bit of international pressure helps. It’s time for people who care about human rights to adopt a new cause: the Third World person’s right to exist. Our people are under fire from global terrorism of a terminal new order. Many have already been wiped off the face of the earth.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara has spent the last ten years working with indigenous people in the hills of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
An ordinary death
Manbi, a 15-year-old Kattunaicken tribal girl, died of anaemia. No, not leukaemia, anaemia. She was not ill. She suffered from no incurable disease. Her death was solely due to lack of decent food. She didn’t need a fancy diet. Just dal (pulses) and sag (greens) could have saved her.
Doctors Roopa and Narayanan Devadasan received a phone call from their health worker in the Nilgiris Chembakolly forest village where Manbi lived. The girl seemed serious, said the call. Their jeep rushed to pick up the patient. It took a couple of hours to get her to our makeshift clinic. Roopa took one look at her and said ‘Cross match. Find her blood group. She needs a donor immediately.’ They took a blood sample. The blood when it came was like water into which a drop of red ink had been mixed. Her haemaglobin was less than one gram per 100 millilitre (Indian women normally have ten grams).
As Roopa tried to find her blood group the girl’s mother announced ‘it’s too late, amma, she’s gone already’. The family took a glass of tea from the kitchen and poured a few drops into the dead girl’s mouth. Ritual observed, they carried her back to the jeep. Hardly 15 minutes had elapsed between her arrival and her death.
In the outer office, a typewriter clattered. Everything had happened so fast. The others had not yet registered that we’d had a death in the next room. The news filtered out and everyone came to help. Someone brought a mat. We arranged her body comfortably on the jeep. Stupidly, futilely. But it gave us something to do. Roopa was in shock; the rest of us scarcely better. The jeep moved off to return her to her forest home.
Roopa went into her office. We congregated around her wordlessly. She was sobbing uncontrollably. ‘We’ve worked here for so many years,’ she said, ‘and now a death like this. Is there any point in continuing?’ All of us had been through similar crises and we knew it would pass. The struggle has to go on. But after eight years in the Nilgiris I still cannot accept the utterly tragic, preventable deaths which the average tribal person accepts as her lot.
Do the Manbis of this world not have a right to live? Is it not time for this human-rights violation to get as much publicity as that of the political prisoner who dies with a bullet in her back? MMT