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Letter From India


The broken kaleidoscope
India's cultural hero this year is not Michael Jackson but a movie hero
who fights corruption, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

Illustration by SARAH JOHN The jet-setters flew in to Mumbai (the new post-colonial name for Bombay) from all parts of India to be seen at the Michael Jackson show. That the show took place at all was bizarre, given that the ruling far-right party in Maharashtra state, the Shiv Sena, is rabidly anti-Western. But they were prepared to swallow their principles for the megabucks they were pocketing as part of the concert deal and even ordered Chief Minister Joshi suffered through it in silence with cotton-wool earplugs. Fans paid 15,000 rupees a ticket to watch. An average worker is thankful to take home 1,500 rupees a month. In other parts of India such as Bihar, labourers work for as little as seven rupees a day and consider themselves lucky to get work at all.

When I stop to think of the year gone by, no clear picture emerges. It’s rather like a bad, broken kaleidoscope. But this image of Michael Jackson cavorting for the élite will serve as sufficient summary. The paradoxes in India are mind-boggling. Our cities take pride in their new cars, pagers, luxury apartments and burgeoning middle class. It is this 200-million-strong middle class with its flaunted purchasing power which is attracting foreign investors to a country which once valued its independence from the global free market.

India is changing. But however you turn the kaleidoscope, one thing never changes: corruption. Most normal people are sick of it, but it’s all-pervasive. The recent film Hindustani had audiences all over the country give the hero a standing ovation – for fighting corruption.

It is not just on the silver screen that the war against corruption has been waged: the corporate Mafia have been scared out of their normally-complacent skins. ITC, a corporate tobacco giant, has been nabbed for allegedly cheating the Government of taxes to the tune of $100 million. The sight of their most prominent directors in jail has shaken the corporate world like nothing before.

The interesting thing here is that unlike politicians who are universally despised, businesspeople are the pillars of society. These are the people who sit in exclusive clubs in comfortable old leather-covered armchairs. Scams like ITC have exposed the nexus between the politicians and the market.

And the good news is that, for the first time in the history of India, the courts have relentlessly prosecuted ministers and government officials for corruption. Of course Parliament has 'deplored' this judicial activism. Stepping on their turf, the judges are. The people are delighted. But many a minister is petrified waiting for the axe to fall.

The year saw a new Government, which ought to mean good news. In practice the Indian electorate has become cynical and blasé, not least because of that endemic corruption. We’ve seen scam after scam and it’s now a question of voting for the best of a fairly bad lot.

Deve Gowda, our new Prime Minister, takes pride in being a son of the soil. He preserves his peasant image: meeting visiting dignitaries in crumpled dhotis and distributing largesse in the form of rural loans which everyone assumes don’t need to be paid back.

But he also believes in progress. So he’s dismissed environmentalists as people who hinder development, élitist devils who keep the poor in perennial darkness by opposing his pet power projects, who keep peasants in parched poverty by opposing large dams. Gowda is furious about demonstrations against the IMF in general, and the World Bank President (who just visited) in particular, because he welcomes transnational corporations and foreign capital.

But the most unforgivable blow of all is something Indian farmers may never recover from. As Chief Minister of Karnataka State, Deve Gowda was responsible for initiating legislation to overturn the Land Ceiling Act to enable transnational corporations to come in and buy thousands of hectares of land.

Always these companies gobble up land by offering lucrative prices. Statistics have proved that marginal farmers who succumb and sell up are pauperized and reduced to landless labourers or urban slum-dwellers within a decade. Action Aid India has put out a startling advertisement to create awareness about the issues of food security. It has a picture of a cemetery with the caption: 'In a few years, this is the only way our farmers will return to their land.'

The food situation is deteriorating at an alarming rate. India has until now been fairly self-sufficient in food grains. But the trade liberalization and structural adjustment of the last few years have started to erode that healthy self-sufficiency, wrenching agriculture away from food crops towards cash crops for the global economy.

As I write this there is a rumour in the Nilgiris where I live that the World Bank has sanctioned $400 million for the development of tea in South India. This involves offering enormous loans and subsidies to persuade farmers to switch from non-profitable food crops to World Bank-subsidized cash crops – tea, spices, ginger and silk. It's an offer they can't refuse. Our only hope is for farmers to understand the threat and form a resistance. They’ve done so already, attacking transnational corporations which are a perceived threat.

In doing so they are building on India’s history of protest which has politicized farmers since the freedom struggle. Such organized resistance feels like the only hope. It seems like clutching at straws. But then there’s not much else left.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara wrote a monthly letter for the NI in the early 1990s from her project working with indigenous people in the Nilgiris Hills of Tamil Nadu, India.

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New Internationalist issue 287 magazine cover This article is from the January 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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