Ashok Mitra, economist and political activist, has straddled several careers. He was Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute and the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, and was on the faculty of the Economic Development Institute in Washington, DC. He was subsequently Chairman, Agricultural Prices Commission and Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India. Still later, he was finance and planning minister in West Bengal and a member of the Rajya Sabha. He also happens to be an essayist in English as well as Bengali, and has received the Sahitya Akademi award for contributions to Bengali literature.
He contributed, off and on for more than three decades, to the widely-read ‘Calcutta Diary column in the Economic and Political kl4ekly, and continues to write a column, ‘Cutting Corners’, for The Telegraph, Calcutta, His Bengali memoirs has recently been made available in English translation A Pratder’s Tale — and has attracted some attention.
The Starkness of It is a selection culled out from the essays which formed the corpus of the now defunct fortnightly ‘Calcutta Diary’ column in the Economic and Political Weekly; these were written in the corridor of time between February 1986, when the author had just vacated one political position, and August 1993, when he took up another.
Some might describe this collection as an exercise in literary archaeology not really worth the effort. They of course would have their reasons. The country and, along with the country, the world, they could argue, have changed beyond recognition in the past decade and a half. Issues occupying centre stage when these essays were written have, it could be suggested, faded into insignificance, and are at best of interest only to those vulnerable to a certain genre of nostalgia. Others might be even more forthright: these pieces, they would say not only not make pleasant reading; they are written in a prose that is excessively vitriolic.
It is easier to cope with the latter charge. When the ambience is uncouth, it is difficult to take care of manners. The present writer therefore does not pretend to feel particularly apologetic, even ex post, at the use of strong language in some of the essays. In the final analysis, the issue is one of a point of view; one does not have to call a spade a shovel; a spade should still be revealed in its own identity.
The more important question that could be posted with respect to The Starkness of It concerns its over—all thematic relevance at this juncture. Have not the parameters of the debate transformed in the past fifteen years? Have they really? True, in many spheres of life and living, changes have been of a breathtaking nature, quantity has moulded into quality, India now stands ramrod against a globalised landscape, with promises of emerging soon as an economic superpower. There is little point going overboard though. The endeavors at liberalizing the economy had in fact started in the early 1980s. While the ruling party was even then the Indian National Congress, it had already moved out of the spell of the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, and was putty clay in the hands of his two grandsons, who took charge of the polity one after another. While its formal announcement was delayed till July 1991, the process of wholesale globalization was actually on for a number of years. Import substitution had been discarded as the prime objective of official policy; the intent to cross over to the modality of export led growth was fairly evident. Admittedly, it was still a period of groping around, with the quest continuing for a profitable export sector. That quest finally met with noteworthy success in the early years of the new millennium. What emerged was not the phenomenon of an export boom of any commodity or any range of commodities. It was, instead, the bonanza of a particular service activity. Outsourcing by several Western countries and Japan of Information Technology enabled services has led to a galloping increase in the country’s export earnings The break with the past has coincided with the iconic role currently being played by the Information Technology sector. Less than 1.5 million persons employed in this sector, constituting not even one—third of 1 per cent of India’s total working force, are appropriating more than 5 per cent of gross domestic product. Their contribution to the country’s exports is close to one—third of the total. They have made nonsense of India’s balance of payments crisis which was a chronic malady in the decades immediately following independence. The buoyancy in the services sector has been responsible for a second—order buoyancy specially in consumer—goods manufactures, with further rippling effects on the rest of the industrial sector.
But do such events mean, once and for all, a surcease of gloomy tidings for the nation? Despite the export boom and the accelerated growth of gross domestic product, India remains one of the poorest countries in the world, going by the ranking of nations in terms of per capita income vetted by the United Nations. Precisely because of excessive dependency on outsourced growth and the bulge of activities in the services sector, income inequalities have aggravated in recent years. Gains derived from the farm strategy inducted four decades ago have petered out; agricultural growth over the past one decade and a half has in fact fallen behind the rate of growth of population per capita availability of food grains too has steadily declined. Land reforms were never considered as a serious item in the nation’s agenda Trade liberalization insisted upon by the World Trade Organization has of late further worsened the conditions of a vast majority amongst the peasantry; suicide by farmers in distress is at present an everyday occurrence in many parts of the country. If account is taken of the fact that close to two—thirds of the nation still depend, on farm income for their survival; the contemporary Indian tragedy gets revealed in sharper profile. This is quite an extraordinary situation: gross domestic product is making impressive strides, but it is having no impression on the level of earnings of overwhelming sections of the working class. The curiosum of jobless growth, already partly noticeable in the early 1990s, is now established as a hard, nearly inflexible datum.
Even more daunting is the large—scale unawareness of the magnitude of the crisis. The media as well as the ruling politicians lustily cheer the arrival of the new bourgeoisie who are the sole beneficiaries of the recent trends in the economy.
Globalization and developments associated with it have closed thousands of small and medium scale industrial units, ruined a considerable number of cottage crafts, rendered havoc to agriculture, thrown out of their jobs millions of farm and industrial workers and artisans. At the same time, a prosperous middle class, aggregating to as many as 150 to 200 million, has emerged in the limelight. They, strong supporters of the globalization hypothesis, are rapidly veering to a comprador mind—set. The country’s bourses are reaching dizzy heights because of their indulgement; they have come to regard the windfall from outsourcing as an inalienable eternal truth of existence: few bother to stop and take cognizance of the not-altogether-inconceivable possibility of the bursting of the bubble of outsourcing-based comfort perchance a shift takes place in policies and practices in, for example, the United States.
Come to think of it, is not outsourcing itself a reincarnation of colonialism and dependency, albeit in a new form? Thousands of black immigrants imported into the United States from the Dark Continent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slaved away, for generations on end, to raise wheat, corn, cotton and tobacco in plantations across the southern States, receiving no wages beyond subsistence. The surplus accruing from their labour provided the wherewithal for the massive industrialization of North America. The current vogue of outsourcing is not much different from the culture of imported slave labour in the United States or that of indentured labour in the Caribbean region, Fiji and Mauritius in the past centuries; the only difference is that low—wage workers. are no longer imported, they stay in their home base in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gurgaon and such other spots, are paid wages that are perhaps only about 5 per cent of what needs to he paid in the United States for work of the same quality and quantity; the profitability of American — and Western — capitalism is thereby left unimpaired. The units in India ensure the supply side of outsourcing; their employees are, so to say, slaves at large.
Paradoxically, they have nonetheless contributed to the widening of economic inequalities. For while these external slaves are paid a bare fraction of the standard wage rate for work of the same specification in, say, the United States, even so, what they earn is on an average several times higher than the average earnings of a technologist or scientist or artisan in typical Indian conditions. Liberalization has taught the Indian middle class the virtue of profit maximization; there is therefore an almost unlimited supply of aspirants to join the outsourcing units; a rapid migration consequently takes place from universities and technical institutions towards the direction of the information technology—related units and other modernized capital—using segments of the economy, including banks and insurance companies.
Should not this development be cause for immense worry? In the long run, it is likely to lead to an intellectual vacuum in universities and other institutes of higher learning. Even public administration is unlikely to remain unaffected. Recruitment for public services, where remuneration is a pittance compared to what the outsourcing units offer, could create a steep decline in the calibre of personnel entering government service at different levels; the impact on administration, including development administration, could riot but be adverse. Consider too the further prospect. With income distribution continuing to tilt against the poor and those left out of the boom in the export sector and the stock exchanges, social disturbances are likely to spread with increasing intensity; the State machinery would be woefully ill equipped to tackle the unfolding situation.
Meanwhile, other symptoms of economic and social degeneracy are showing up. Liberalization preaches the imperative necessity of the government vacating the commanding heights of the economy; public investment is supposed to be the villain of the piece in the affairs of men. The government in New Delhi has been following the precept. Procurement of food grains by the State has declined, severely affecting the public distribution system and endangering food security for large sections of the poor and the lower middle class. There is also a steady shrinkage in the supply of infrastructural services which, for example, agriculture needs, or which are essential for the survival of the urban and rural poor, such as housing, public health amenities, sanitation and potable water. The government, however, is cajoled into investing in infrastructural activities where private profitability is low but which are greatly demanded by the rich, for instance, bridges, highways, flyovers, shopping malls, etc. The poor therefore suffer on both counts. The cut-back in public investment implies a diminution in the provision of public utilities from which they could benefit. And the first charge even of the curtailed public outlay is largely to cater to the demands of the affluent. Even when allotments are made in the public domain for ameliorating the conditions of the poor, the funds do not get spent because of administrative sloth; this is the fate currently overtaking the rural employment guarantee scheme.
The issues the essays in this volume had focused on have not disappeared. A society which believes in turning its back on its majority had already conic into existence; it has now received the imprimatur of formal recognition. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act is beautifully designed to thwart any initiative on the part of the public sector to make even moderately generous outlays on social services intended for the distressed sections.
Innocents are still around, liberal—minded in the old sense, who are not yet prepared to shed their optimism. Even if the State withdraws from meeting its obligations to the nation’s majority, the magnanimous—minded amongst the comfortably placed, the hope is expressed, will, on their own, spending from their private coffers, build houses and open schools and hospitals for the poor, and save the environment from spoliation fostered by unplanned economic growth. Few from the affluent classes are prepared to humour such pipedreams. The archetypal response of this set is the one coming from an individual who heads one of the largest Information Technology related industrial units in the country. Requested to make a modest outlay for improving the sanitation and other infrastructural conditions in the city where his unit is located — specially in areas inhabited by the poor — he was devastatingly forthright: 97.5 per cent of the net profits of his unit accrued from the United States, Germany and Japan; he could not care the least whether India’s poor lived or died.
We thus come to face the crucial question. Can a nation survive and prosper in an ideological vacuum? Once upon a distant time, the Indian National Congress had wrapped itself in the ethos of nationalism. With Independence, that theme lost its relevance. Another pre-Independence commitment was for the upliftment of the poor and down-trodden. A further promise was the introduction of universal adult suffrage. While the shibboleth of building a socialist patter of society and removal of poverty has continued to be mouthed by ruling political groups, the bulk of the electorate have remained miserably poor. Politicians in power have pontificated on the necessity of eradicating poverty and, in the same breath, practice an altogether reverse strategy for nearly half a century That long season of hypocrisy is perhaps approaching its terminal point growing awareness even without formal literacy threatens to be the new reality. The compulsions of vote banks are therefore inducing political groups to adopt rapidly shifting positions. Ideology, though, has ceased to make the grade, unless it be the ideology of opportunism.
The town cynic has always been around; there is little reason to assume his profession is now ended. The dialectics of caste is yet to be supplanted by that of class. One consequence is the vulgar race currently on among the different political parties to mark out distinct areas of influence for themselves, often on the basis of caste affiliations. The national electorate is resembling the image of a cracked mirror. The Congress these days does not get more than a quarter of the total votes cast in any national election; nor does the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Left, caught in a bind on account of the caste—class configuration, has not been able to raise its share to beyond 10 per cent The rest of the field is no man’s land to be targeted by obscurantist’s of the oddest sort, caste—based sectarians and regional groupings who do not concern themselves with enunciation of any long-range goals: they live for today or till the date of the next poll. Amid such proceedings, anything goes in the name of serving the poor and the oppressed.
Ideology meanwhile has been on the wane. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a precursor to the disappearance of the East European socialist bloc. The period has also coincided with China’s new socio—economic experiments, euphemistically referred to by its enthusiasts as socialism with Chinese characters. It has, however, evoked other interpretations too. Given this state of ideological turmoil in the world socialist movement, it is not much of a surprise that the Left in India has found itself on wobbly grounds. Barring Latin America, the neo-liberals have established themselves most firmly across the continents. The philosophy on offer on behalf of the votaries of liberalization boils down to a tenet whose basic message is self—seeking. Debate will continue whether it is really an ideology, or the negation of one.
If vacuity of thought is the ruling idea, it can catch on quickly, and, in the process, breed a genre of behavioural opportunism. This is exactly what is coming about. The dilemma the Left is facing in India is obvious; the agony it is causing is equally obvious. For instance, should you stick to your socialist ideology and refuse to accept investible funds from private sources, whether domestic or foreign, you would have no alternative but to go to the wall. Again, if you defy the reality of caste and persist in dreaming of a natural transmutation of caste into class, others might walk away with your constituency. If you try o keep away from the blight of Information Technology- enabled service activities which end up in a regime of the comprador—minded, you run the hazard of being described as Luddites and deserted by those sections of the middle class who were with you till now.
None of these issues have suddenly been sprung upon us; they were there all along, in various forms and shades, echoing the tussle between faith and cynicism. Several of the essays in The Starkness f It betray a pre—occupation with the generic problem, floes it then follow that the more it changes, the more it remains the same? It is best to confess: one hardly knows the answer.
Perhaps the lack of ideological moorings has partly facilitated the dissemination, on a wide scale, of the concept of global terror. The purpose motivating the terror—monger is to create an environment of widespread, irrational fear which could evoke hatred directed toward a specific target. Terror supposedly needs to be combated through counter—terror, and tinder State auspices. In the engineered hullabaloo, no opportunity is being allowed to us to sort out in our minds whether a reversal of the arrangement of facts is not called for, whether those accused of being the source of terror were not themselves the original victims of terror.
The ‘Calcutta Diary’ pieces could not quite foretell the dawn of the hour of terror. They were nonetheless seized with a parallel concern, separating heroes from anti—or non—heroes. Whatever the time and whatever the state of the polity, some individuals stand out a little aside from the crowd. They often plough a lonely furrow. They are denied the recognition that is their due by contemporary society. So what, they stick to their ideology and their convictions. Some of the essays in this volume refer to a number of such individuals. One can take a wager that the tribe of Snehangshu Acharyyas and Samar Sens will henceforth get thinner and thinner. Another realization hurts about equally: in the wake of liberalization, culture and literature have entered a dim phase. Between the Internet and satellite television, the methodology of communications between human beings is totally transformed. That apart, the splurge in consumption has contracted the time people can set aside to think or devote to the muses. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir no longer excite, one fears, the faculty of intellection of men and women. Even exploration of the psyche, which was the obsession of someone like Georges Simenon, is an extraneous subject in today’s context. And sensitive, awe—inspiring prose, dealing with the condition of man in the manner of a Graham Greene or a James Baldwin, will conceivably be laughed at by the current audience.
One must still persist. The act of persistence is an expression of faith, faith that the future could yet be different from what the present portrays. The Starkness of It is not, in the view of its author; an anachronism; it is soul—searching. Humanity survives because it does not adjourn its soul searching sessions, never mind war and pestilence, never mind the vacuum in philosophy.
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