Monday, March 31, 2014

BJP, Congress or Aam Admi?

As any writer who is not independently wealthy I write for hire. Not as a journalist but as an expert consultant.

My specialty for many years has been international cooperation for development, a field at once richly satisfying -- because it is about hope and aspiration -- and deeply disheartening in the venal cynicism of its theorists.

Consider, for instance, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted as an afterthought by the summit-level meeting of the UN General Assembly at the cusp of the 21st Century.

Advertised as measurable targets for “development,” they were actually little more than a diversion, drawing attention away from such grim realities as the global black market that sucks out ten times more from poor countries than they get as "aid." 

“Halve poverty levels by 2015” was the lead MDG.

It did not say how that should be done, or at what cost.

In China, which has made the most rapid progress in reducing poverty, it was done by massive foreign investments that made the country the “workshop of the world.”

But the costs have been terrible.

A team of Chinese scientists reported earlier this year that air pollution in the country had become so bad that it was blocking out the sun and reducing plant growth. They compared it to “nuclear winter,” when the debris thrown into the atmosphere by atomic bombs is projected to make photosynthesis impossible.

And that’s not the worst of it.

China’s progress has been built on sand.

When the financial crisis of 2008 and the “Great Recession” that followed in Europe and North America threatened to collapse its export driven economy, Beijing spent half a trillion dollars to prop up growth.

Most of the money went to build infrastructure.

They built highways, bridges and tunnels with few users, a pricey super-fast railway and huge airports with little air traffic.

Most of all, they built housing. There is now an apartment for every family in China. But most are unoccupied, for they are priced too high and are in areas where there is no economic activity to support an urban population.

All across China now there are not only millions of unoccupied buildings, there are entire ghost cities.

Even that is not the worst of it.

China’s booming “development” created a crony capitalism that allied predatory wheeler-dealers with the Communist power structure. They took land forcibly from poor farmers, forcing millions to become migrant workers in factories thousands of miles away from their homes.

There are now over 200 million migrant workers living on slave wages in urban areas. While the workers languish in poverty, Party flacks and their business cronies grew enormously rich.

China's growing army of millionaires and billionaires are estimated to keep much of their wealth in other countries and some 80 per cent are reported to have established foreign residency rights.

Narendra Modi is a votary of this model of “development,” and it has enamored Indian Big Business.

It has blinded business leaders to his violent communal record, bully-boy rhetoric and capacity to corrupt and misuse the Intelligence and Police services. One of them hailed him as "King of kings" at a recent conclave that was an unmitigated abomination in a democracy.

Quite obviously, no Indian in her right mind should vote for the Modi-led BJP.

Congress is a better choice in that it is not openly communal and is more aware of the poor and middle class. But in seeking to woo Big Business away from Modi, will it offer – has it offered – the same kind of crony capitalism?

Despite the rhetoric of its election platform, there is little reason to believe that the Congress has a view of development much different from Modi's. Its much touted Land Bill will raise the cost of appropriating land, but will do no justice to the farmer.

Expropriating land to benefit the rich will very quickly begin to destabilize the balance of castes in rural areas that is the bedrock of Indian political stability. It will feed and expand the insurrections that now ravage tribal areas. The country could quite easily slip into the state of general civil war that preceded colonial rule.

Is there a way to avoid this prospect?

Yes, but to see the way the Indian political elite must heed the first teaching of the Hitopadesa and let fall the veil of greed that now prevents them from seeing the true wealth of the country, its people.

“Development” does not mean highways and dams and skyscrapers, and flashy dressers calling each other “Dude;” it means that everyone in the country is fed, educated and profitably employed.

Can we have that without industrialization and Big Business?

Yes. In fact, the technology of the Information Age is making Big Business obsolete.

The capacity to identify and cater to niche markets through the World Wide Web has the potential to make small scale artisanal production competitive with mass produced goods. That will destroy the primary reason for the mass market and giant corporations.

The nature of industrial production is also undergoing fundamental change. The combination of off-grid renewable energy and 3-D printing has revolutionary implications.

It means we can have top quality industrial products made in remote rural areas. When the best educational services and cultural products are also available online in rural areas, the pressures now causing rapid urbanization will disappear. As rural development accelerates, population growth will decelerate very rapidly, and that will change all other economic projections.

We are facing a future when there will be no reason for massive energy and raw materials supplies to be concentrated at points of production. There will be nothing to drive predatory exploitation of natural resources. The corporations of the future will be flat networks of entrepreneurs, each grounded in his/her own community and meeting real human needs.

The rather confused vision of rural development set out in Arvind Kejriwal’s book Swaraj could help bring such a future to life – if the Aam Admi Party can convince the Indian voter that it is capable of governing.

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