Tuesday, Dec 07, 2021
Cover Story

Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin

Arundhati Roy explores the power politics that unites the indian elite, its big buisness and the Multinationals, endangering in the process not only the country's economy but also its real people.

Power Politics:
The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin
Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin
Remember him? The gnome who could turn straw into gold? Well he's back now, but you wouldn't recognise him. To begin with, he's not an individual gnome anymore. I'm not sure how best to describe him. Let's just say he's metamorphosed into an accretion, a cabal, an assemblage, a malevolent, incorporeal, transnational multi-gnome. Rumpelstiltskin is a notion (gnotion), a piece of deviant, insidious, white logic that will eventually self-annihilate. But for now he's more than okay. He's cock of the walk. King of All That Really Counts (Cash). He's decimated the competition, killed all the other kings, the other kinds of kings. He's persuaded us that he's all we have left. Our only salvation.

What kind of potentate is Rumpelstiltskin? Powerful, pitiless and armed to the teeth. He's a kind of king the world has never known before. His realm is raw capital, his conquests emerging markets, his prayers profits, his borders limitless, his weapons nuclear. To even try and imagine him, to hold the whole of him in your field of vision, is to situate yourself at the very edge of sanity, to offer yourself up for ridicule. King Rumpel reveals only part of himself at a time. He has a bank-account heart. He has television eyes and a newspaper nose in which you see only what he wants you to see and read only what he wants you to read. (See what I mean about the edge of sanity?) There's more: a Surround Sound stereo mouth which amplifies his voice and filters out the sound of the rest of the world so that you can't hear it even when it's shouting (or starving, or dying) and King Rumpel is only whispering, rolling his r's in his North American way.

Listen carefully, this is most of the rest of his story. (It hasn't ended yet, but it will. It must.) It ranges across seas and continents, sometimes majestic and universal, sometimes confining and local. Now and then I'll peg it down with disparate bits of history and geography that could mar the gentle art of storytelling. So please bear with me.

In March this year (2000 AD), the President of the United States (His Excellency the most exalted plenipotentiary of Rumpeldom) visited India. He brought his own bed, the feather pillow he hugs at night and a merry band of businessmen. He was courted and fawned over by the genuflecting representatives of this ancient civilisation with a fervour that can only be described as indecent. Whole cities were superficially spruced up. The poor were herded away, hidden from the presidential gaze. Streets were soaped and scrubbed and festooned with balloons and welcome banners. In Delhi's dirty sky, vindicated nuclear hawks banked and whistled: Dekho ji dekho! Bill is here because we have the Bomb. Those Indian citizens with even a modicum of self-respect were so ashamed they stayed in bed for days. Some of us had puzzled furrows on our brows. Since everybody behaved like a craven, happy slave when Master visited, we wondered why we hadn't gone the whole distance. Why hadn't we just crawled under Master's nuclear umbrella in the first place? Then we could spend our pocket money on other things (instead of bombs) and still be all safe and slavey. No?

Just before The Visit, the Government of India lifted import restrictions on 1,400 commodities including milk, grain, sugar and cotton (even though this year there was a glut of sugar and cotton in the market, even though 42.5 million tonnes of grain was rotting in government storehouses). During The Visit, contracts worth about US $3 (some say 4) billion were signed.

For reasons of my own, I was particularly interested in a Memorandum of Intent signed between the Ogden Energy Group, a company that specialises in operating garbage incinerators in the US, and the S.Kumars, an Indian textile company that manufactures what it calls 'suiting blends'. Now what might garbage incineration and suiting blends possibly have in common? Suit-incineration? Guess again. Garbage-blends? Nope. A big hydel dam on the river Narmada in central India.

Neither Ogden nor the S.Kumars has ever built or operated a large dam before. The 400 MW Shri Maheshwar Hydel Project being promoted by the S.Kumars is part of the Narmada Valley Development Project, which boasts of being the most ambitious river valley project in the world. It envisages building 3,200 dams (30 big dams, 135 medium dams and the rest small) that will reconstitute the Narmada and her 41 tributaries into a series of step reservoirs—an immense staircase of enslaved water. It will alter the ecology of an entire river basin, affect the lives of 25 million people who live in the valley, submerge 4,000 sq km of old growth, deciduous forest, hundreds of temples, as well as archaeological sites dating back to the lower Palaeolithic age.

The dams that have been built on the river so far are all government projects. The Maheshwar Dam is slated to be India's first major private hydel power project.

What is interesting about it is not only that it's part of the most bitterly opposed river valley project in India, but also that it is a strand in the skein of a mammoth global enterprise. Understanding what is happening in Maheshwar, decoding the nature of the deals that are being struck between two of the world's great democracies, will go a long way towards gaining a rudimentary grasp of what is being done to us, while we, poor fools, stand by and clap and cheer and hasten things along. (When I say 'us', I mean people, human beings. Not countries, not governments.)

Personally, I took the first step towards arriving at this understanding when, over a few days in March this year (2000 AD), I lived through a writer's bad dream. I witnessed the ritualistic slaughter of Language as I know and understand it. Let me explain.

On the very days that President Clinton was in India, in far away Holland, the World Water Forum was convened. Three thousand and five hundred bankers, businessmen, government ministers, policy writers, engineers, economists (and, in order to pretend that the ‘other side’ was also represented—a handful of activists, indigenous dance troupes, impoverished street theatre groups and half a dozen young girls dressed as inflatable silver faucets) gathered at The Hague to discuss the future of the world's water. Every speech was generously peppered with phrases like ‘women's empowerment’, ‘people’s participation’ and ‘deepening democracy’. Yet it turned out that the whole purpose of the Forum was to press for the privatisation of the world's water. There was pious talk of having access to drinking water declared a Basic Human Right. How would this be implemented, you might ask. Simple. By putting a market value on water. By selling it at its 'true' price. (It's common knowledge that water is becoming a scarce resource. One billion people in the world have no access to drinking water.) The ‘market’ decrees that the scarcer something is, the more expensive it becomes. So the talk of connecting human rights to a ‘true price’ was more than a little baffling.At first I didn’t quite get their drift—did they believe in human rights for the rich, or that only the rich are human or that all humans are rich? But I see it now. A shiny, climate-controlled human rights supermarket with a clearance sale on Christmas day. (A small but necessary clarification: there is a difference between valuing water and putting a market value on water. No one values water more than a village woman who has to walk miles to fetch it. No one values it less than urban folk who pay for it to flow endlessly at the turn of a tap.)

One marrowy American panelist put it rather nicely—"God gave us the rivers," he drawled, "but he didn’t put in the delivery systems. That’s why we need private enterprise." No doubt with a little Structural Adjustment to the rest of the things God gave us, we could all live in a simpler world (If all the seas were one sea, what a big sea it would be...)—Evian could own the water, Rand the earth, Enron the air. Old Rumpelstiltskin could be the handsomely paid supreme CEO.

When all the rivers and valleys and forests and hills of the world have been priced, packaged, bar-coded and stacked in the local supermarket, when all the hay and coal and earth and wood and water has been turned to gold, what then shall we do with all the gold? Make nuclear bombs to obliterate what's left of the ravaged landscapes and the notional nations in our ruined world?

As a writer one spends a lifetime journeying into the heart of language, trying to minimise, if not eliminate, the distance between language and thought. ‘Language is the skin on my thought’, I remember saying to someone who once asked what language meant to me. At The Hague I stumbled on a denomination, a sub-world, whose life's endeavour was entirely the opposite of mine. For them the whole purpose of language was to mask intent. They earn their abundant livings by converting bar graphs that plot their companies' profits into consummately written, politically exemplary, socially just policy documents that are impossible to implement and designed to remain forever on paper, secret even (especially) from the people they’re written for. They breed and prosper in the space that lies between what they say and what they sell. What they’re lobbying for is not simply the privatisation of natural resources and essential infrastructure, but the privatisation of policy-making itself. Dam-builders want to control public water policies. Power utility companies want to draft power policies and financial institutions want to supervise government disinvestment.

Let’s begin at the beginning. What does privatisation really mean? Essentially, it is the transfer of public productive assets from the State to private companies. Productive assets include natural resources. Earth, forest, water, air. These are assets that the State holds in trust for the people it represents. In a country like India, 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas. That's 700 million people. Their lives depend directly on access to natural resources.To snatch these away and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history.

What happens when you ‘privatise’ something as essential to human survival as water? What happens when you commodify water and say that only those who can come up with the cash to pay the ‘market price’ can have it? In 1999, the government of Bolivia privatised the public water supply system in the city of Cochacomba, and signed a 40-year lease with Bechtel, a giant US engineering firm.The first thing Bechtel did was to triple the price of water. Hundreds of thousands of people simply couldn't afford it any more. Citizens came out on the streets to protest. A transport strike brought the entire city to a standstill. Hugo Banzer, the former Bolivian dictator (now the President) ordered the police to fire at the crowds. Six people were killed, 175 injured and two children blinded. The protest continued because people had no options—what's the option to thirst? In April 2000, Banzer declared Martial Law. The protest continued. Eventually Bechtel was forced to flee its offices. Now it's trying to extort a $12-million exit payment from the Bolivian government.

Cochacomba has a population of half a million people. Think of what would happen in an Indian city. Even a small one.

Rumpelstiltskin thinks big. Today he's stalking mega-game: dams, mines, armaments, power plants, public water supply systems, telecommunication systems, the management and dissemination of knowledge, biodiversity, seeds (he wants to own life and the very process of reproduction) and the industrial infrastructure that supports all this. His minions arrive in Third World countries masquerading as missionaries come to redeem the wretched. They have a completely different dossier in their briefcases. To understand what they’re really saying (selling), you have to teach yourself to unscramble their vernacular.

Recently, John Welch, chairman of General Electric (GE), was on TV in India. "I beg and pray to the Indian Government to improve infrastructure," he said, and added touchingly, "Don’t do it for GE’s sake, do it for yourselves." He went on to say that privatising the power sector was the only way to bring India’s one billion people into the digital network. "You can talk about information and intellectual capital, but without the power to drive it, you will miss the next revolution."

What he meant, of course, was: "You are a market of one billion customers. If you don’t buy our equipment, we will miss the next revolution."

Will someone please tell him that of his one billion ‘customers’, 400 million are illiterate and live without even one square meal a day, and 200 million have no access to safe drinking water? Being brought into the ‘digital framework’ is hardly what’s uppermost on their minds.

The story behind the story is as follows: there are six corporations that dominate the production of power generation equipment in the world. GE is one of them. Together, each year they manufacture (and therefore need to sell) equipment that can generate 20,000 MW of power. For a variety of reasons there is little (read almost zero) additional demand for power equipment in the First World. This leaves these mammoth multinationals with a redundant capacity that they desperately need to offload. India and China are their big target markets, because between these two countries, the demand for power-generating equipment is 10,000 MW per year.

The First World needs to sell, the Third World needs to buy—it ought to be a reasonable business proposition. But it isn’t. For many years, India has been more or less self sufficient in power equipment. The Indian public sector company, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), manufactured and even exported world-class power equipment. All that’s changed now. Over the years, our own government has starved it of orders, cut off funds for research and development and more or less edged it out of a dignified existence.Today BHEL is no more than a sweatshop. It is being forced into ‘joint ventures’ (one with GE and one with Siemens) where its only role is to provide cheap, unskilled labour while they provide the equipment and the technology. Why? Why does more expensive, imported foreign equipment suit our bureaucrats and politicians better? We all know why. Because graft is factored into the deal. Buying equipment from your local store is just not the same thing. It’s not surprising that almost half the officials named in the Jain Hawala scandal were officials from the power sector involved with the selection and purchase of power equipment.

The privatisation of power (felicitous phrase!) is at the top of the Indian government's agenda. The US is the single largest foreign investor in the power sector (which, to some extent, explains The Visit). The argument being advanced (both by the government and by the private sector) in favour of privatisation is that over the last 50 years the government has bungled its brief. It has failed to deliver. The State Electricity Boards (SEBS) are insolvent. Inefficiency, corruption, theft and heavy subsidies have run them into the ground.

In the push for privatisation, the customary depiction of the corrupt, oily, Third World government official, selling his country’s interests for personal profit, fits perfectly into the scheme of things. The private sector bristles accusingly. The government coyly acknowledges the accusation and pleads its inability to reform itself. In fact it goes out of its way to exaggerate its own inefficiencies. This is meant to come across as refreshing candour. In a speech he made just before he died, P.R. Kumaramangalam, minister for power, said that the overall figure of loss and deficit in the power sector was Rs 37,000 crore. He went on to say that India's transmission and distribution (T&D) losses are between 35 and 40 per cent. Of the remaining 60 per cent, according to the minister, billing is restricted to only 40 per cent. His conclusion: that only about a quarter of the electricity that is produced in India is metered. Official sources say that this is a somewhat exaggerated account. The situation is bad enough, it doesn’t need to be exaggerated. According to figures put out by the power ministry, the national average T&D losses are 23 per cent. (In 1947 it was 14.39 per cent). Even without the minister's hyperbole, this puts India in the same league as countries with the worst T&D losses in the world, like the Dominican Republic, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The solution to this malaise, we discover, is not to improve our housekeeping skills, not to try and minimise our losses, not to force the State to be more accountable, but to permit it to abdicate its responsibility altogether and privatise the power sector.Then magic will happen. Economic viability and Swiss-style efficiency will kick in like clockwork.

But there’s a sub-plot missing in this narrative. Over the years, the SEBS have been bankrupted by massive power thefts. Who’s stealing the power? Some of it no doubt is stolen by the poor—slum dwellers, people who live in unauthorised colonies on the fringes of big cities. But they don’t have the electrical gadgetry to consume the quantum of electricity we’re talking about. The big stuff, the megawatt thievery, is orchestrated by the industrial sector in connivance with politicians and government officers.


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