This small and readable book is a layperson’s introduction to India’s economic catastrophe. Since many people believe in an ongoing economic miracle, such views are often dismissed as doomsday talk. But it is better to be aware of reality than to live in an illusion. The title is apt—Bhaduri offers us an unsettling vision of what awaits us if we continue along the current path. He alerts us to the ideological assumptions underlying the scientific detachment of our growth-obsessed economists, who operate as metaphysicians of capitalism rather than as acute observers. That is why they will not address the fact that “the market as an institution has no accountability except for the largely make-believe ideology of self-regulation”.
For the past two decades, India has undergone a transformation. Celebrated by an elitist media, the ongoing economic changes have acquired political endorsement across a spectrum ranging from the CPI(M) to the BJP and Congress. In a country where over three-fourths of the population has a daily income of less than Rs 20; some 61 million of whose children are stunted by malnutrition (the world’s highest figure); and over 90 per cent of whose labourers work in conditions of informality, what sense does it make to adhere to a growth strategy that systematically punishes the poor, destroys their livelihood and makes a mockery of democratic citizenship? Bhaduri points to the reality in Indian agriculture, where a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes; where vast tracts of tribal-inhabited land in mineral-rich areas of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh (protected by Schedule 5 of the Constitution) are being acquired by fair means and foul—mostly the latter. Intimidation, police shootings and corruption accompany the transfer of lands for mining and industrial allotments. Forcible acquisition and dispossession amounts to nothing less than violent internal colonisation. And that’s official: a review of land reforms by the rural development ministry describes this as “the biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus”.
The strategy so far can be called ‘developmental terrorism’ where state governments are agents of corporate interests.
Reigning common-sense talks in glib assertions about development and growth. It stubbornly refuses to consider the question: development for whom and at whose cost? At what cost to the environment and to the country’s resources? The strategy adopted thus far, says Bhaduri, can only be described as developmental terrorism. This is a blatant assault on Indian democracy by state governments that have become agents of corporate interests. When the central government fails to protect India’s weakest citizens, when peaceful struggles and repeated attempts at legal redress fail, when all political parties fawn on capitalists as the messiahs of growth, the impression is bound to grow that the Indian State itself is rapidly on the way to possession by a mafia. The climate is ripe for extremist ideas to flourish—especially as vested interests and political leaders have thrown the Constitution to the winds.
There is a way out, one that steers between the extremes of a bureaucratic state-controlled economy and untrammelled corporate rapacity. Medha Patkar joins Bhaduri in the last essay, which deals with feasible solutions. They do not oppose industrialisation—that is another glib assertion of an establishment that remains deaf to far-reaching criticism—rather, they ask for an industrialisation that can tap “the enormous productive potential of the people”. They call for growth led by the need for employment rather than corporate profits, growth with a focus on agriculture, domestic demand of ordinary people, the fiscal empowerment of panchayats and devolution of development initiatives—all within the constitutional framework.
It would have been useful if the essays, written over the past few years, had been revised more extensively. Yet its many repetitions do not irritate, for these themes bear repetition. Above all, this is a book about India’s poor as human beings, not as “factors of production”. That is why it could contain more on people’s movements that are not insurgent, but continue to resist the new industrial regime. An excellent introduction to a burning issue, it deserves to be widely read, and made compulsory reading for bureaucrats, policemen and politicians. And, lest we forget, economists.