By Asad Ismi
British colonial rule in India led to the killing of 200 million Indians and, with this holocaust, the country was forced into the Western capitalist system. Capitalism and imperialism created an abyss of poverty in India which continues today as more than 750 million Indians, about 75% percent of the country’s population, are still mired in poverty.
India is depicted by the Western mainstream press as an economic superpower, the poster child of globalization and successful capitalism. But India’s conversion to neoliberal capitalism, which started in 1991, has increased its poverty while enriching a small capitalist élite. The Indian upper-income class, in league with Western multinational corporations and governments, is continuing the economic plunder of Western colonialism by looting the country’s land and mineral resources to increase its wealth, while condemning most of the population to destitution.
India has a higher number of poor people than any other country in the world — close to half the world’s hungry people and one-third of its malnourished children. About half of all children under five in India are malnourished or stunted, and more than 30 million people live in urban slums. Ninety percent of pregnant women between 15 and 49 are undernourished and anaemic. Even more shockingly, just eight of India’s 28 states contain more poor people than exist in the 26 poorest African countries. These states are Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkand, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, which together are inhabited by 421 million poor people.
The largest group impoverished by India’s rapid move to capitalism is the country’s rural population, which makes up 70% of the total, or 770 million people, of whom 400 million are landless. The same pro-capitalist economic reforms that have made India attractive to Western capital and benefited the urban-based middle and upper classes have worsened the economic misery of rural Indians, especially farmers.
These neoliberal economic reforms were initiated in 1991 by the Congress Party government of Narasimha Rao, whose finance minister, Manmohan Singh, is the current Prime Minister. Under World Trade Organization rules, the reforms lowered tariff barriers, deregulated industry, privatized state enterprises, and promoted foreign investment. In agriculture, government subsidies were cut for irrigation, fertilizers, and electricity, and credit from state banks was tightened. The prices of agricultural inputs rose steeply, and this, combined with the flood of cheap crop imports into Indian markets, bankrupted many thousands of Indian farmers, driving a shocking 270,940 of them to commit suicide between 1995 and 2011.
Dr. Vandana Shiva is a prolific Indian author and activist, and director of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. She has worked closely with Indian farmers and has written extensively about the devastating effects India’s move to capitalism has inflicted on them.
Question: Why are Indian farmers committing suicide on such a large scale?
Dr. Vandana Shiva: The farmers’ suicides are genocide–a result of the deliberate neoliberal policies imposed by the World Trade Organization and implemented by the Indian government. Trade liberalization and globalization policies empty democracy of economic content, and remove basic decisions from the democratic influence of a country’s people.
Neoliberalism is designed to destroy small farmers and transform Indian agriculture into large-scale corporate industrial farming. The suicides are due to debts that resulted from the rising cost of production and falling prices, both linked to free trade and trade liberalization policies in agriculture. India’s domestic markets have been taken over by multinational corporations such as Cargill, Canagra, Lever, and ITC, and the country’s food security is being dismantled.
The economy of indebtedness has become what I call a suicide economy. Western multinational corporations such as Monsanto have patented Indian seeds, forcing Indian farmers to buy its expensive seeds with the lie that these will be more lucrative whereas they actually require much more pesticide use and irrigation, thus increasing expenses for farmers, leading to their bankruptcies and loss of land. The farmers go in for it, thinking they are going to make it better, and two years later the agents of the seed companies come and say “your land is now our land.” That’s the day the farmer who fell into this trap drinks pesticide to end his life.
Q: Is capitalism the cause of the poverty of Indian farmers?
Shiva: Greed definitely is, and capitalism is organized greed. In 1988, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, Carla Hills, flew down to India and said, “Crowbar by crowbar, we are going to dismantle your economy to make sure that investments for our companies are open.” That’s what’s called an “open” economy — not open for species, not open for society, not open for diversity, but open for the invader. That’s what they mean by an open market.
I had been doing training sessions for farmers for very long, and in one of them I was running through the emerging World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and I was telling them about Carla Hills’s statement about crowbars in Delhi. They wanted to know which is the biggest company that would benefit out of all this, and I said Cargill. The farmers organized themselves and went and literally used crowbars to dismantle every brick of Cargill’s seed plant. In their press release, they said that, if crowbar by crowbar you’re going to send your companies here, then, crowbar by crowbar, we’re going to send them back. Of course they were arrested and jailed.
Q: Is capitalism a failed system?
Shiva: Very much so. That is why it needs such big bailouts. The model of the exploitation economy has reached its limits in, for example, North America. So only when you relocate aluminium manufacture to a country like India and mine the Nangari Hills where some of the most ancient tribes live, only then do the margins of profits get maintained because labour in aluminum plants in the West has been unionized. The full costs of environmental destruction have to be paid. The full energy costs have to be paid. In India you just go rape the hills. And all labour costs, everything, nobody is paying the full honest price for them.
In a way, a failed economic model got its resurrection through globalization, which is the outsourcing of pollution. You take the pollution and say, “India, China, you carry this burden.” You take work and say, “We want to exploit workers, but ours are too organized, so now we’ll exploit your countries for cheap labour to produce cheap goods for consumers.” That’s another reason why India and China have become so important, because capitalism has failed. You can’t go to Wall Street and say it’s successful. It’s not. It needs a bailout. So what do you say? “Oh, India and China are doing fine on this capitalist model, so we can stick with it. India is the poster girl of a failed model. India, our land and our people, are bearing the brunt right now of keeping that failed model running.
Q: While capitalism has impoverished 750 million Indians, it has enormously enriched a few capitalist Indian families, such as the Ambanis and the Tatas, thus massively increasing social inequality. Please tell us about this astounding and widening gap.
Shiva: Four of the top billionaires of the world are now Indian, and I work at the other end of how they became billionaires because I work with the communities whose land is grabbed, with city dwellers whose water bills or electricity bills have jumped ten times. These few billionaires who have emerged now control one-third of the Indian economy, which means others have lost their part of the economy. The Tatas and the Ambanis are using armed might. I think everything that happened in Latin America and Central America with the creation of the Contras, the arming and dividing of society – it’s all being repeated in India.
Q: How is the capitalist crisis affecting India?
Shiva: The new phenomena happening. in which I am getting deeply involved, is suddenly a land grab. First the capitalists told us that land does not matter, that it’s not real wealth. Wealth, we are told, is what sits in Wall Street and multiplies itself. But then Wall Street collapsed and now all the investors are making a beeline for the lands of Africa and India because they know that’s where real wealth still exists in abundance. And the millions of acres that are being grabbed can only be grabbed through violence. It can only happen through militarized takeovers because the poor who need that piece of land for growing food for their livelihood are not going to say meekly, “Here, you can take it. We’ll starve to death, but that’s fine.” To assume that people will give up their last resources — their water, their land, and their seed – without resistance, and to further assume that 80% of humankind will also be so submissive – that would be folly. The massive takeovers of land and resources have to achieved by force. So the violence we are seeing is inevitable.
[Author’s note: Since 1996, a rural Maoist insurgency has spread across 14 of India’s 28 states.]
Q: What is the alternative to capitalism?
Shiva: I think it is time to sow the seeds of another world based on Earth’s design. What Earth helps grow in her design is life itself. Earth engages in growth by maintaining limits, whereas the false design of capitalism works on the false assumption of limitless growth. There is no such thing as limitless growth – except perhaps for the cancer cell.
What is important is reciprocity, the culture of giving back. You take what you give. In agriculture, there is a natural give and take, but the false design of capitalism only knows how to take. There is no giving back. In the process of only taking, the false design creates the illusion that there is always more. When you take the farmer’s food, you’ll have more, more grain in Cargill warehouses, but the farmers will be starving. So you are not growing more, you are taking more, and unfortunately the GDP only measures taking, not giving.
The culture of giving leads to a culture of mutuality, a culture of co-operation. The giving and the cycles of interconnectedness become the grounds for the flowering of diversity. A culture of taking, on the other hand, breeds monocultures, first of the mind and then in our landscapes, in our lives, in our foods, in our clothing. In this way we impoverish ourselves. Because Earth produces and creates and gives for all–by creating the commons, spaces for sharing – whereas the economy of taking is based on privatization. The time for this very impoverished imagination is over, and it is only being kept in place by all kinds of bailouts–social, financial, cultural, and ideological.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, November 2012
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming radio documentary Capitalism is the Crisis. This is the third article in a series on this topic.