India Under The Hammer

Beyond the Modi-Obama Deal

O P Rana

The world—especially developed countries and the United States in particular—celebrated the deal between New Delhi and Washington to resolve their dispute over what the West says is "stockpiling" of food by governments. The reason: it will clear a major stumbling block to a "bigger" deal to boost world trade. The India-US dispute had been holding up the implementation of a World Trade Organisation deal to reduce customs "red tape" that WTO claims could increase global trade by $1 trillion. But the deal cannot go through if even one of the 160 members of the WTO objects to it. India had objected to the deal in July.

India had asked the WTO to change the rules for calculating agricultural subsidies to procure foodgrains from farmers at minimum support price and sell them to the poor at cheaper rates. But WTO rules limit the value of food subsidies at 10 percent of the total value of foodgrain production, which incidentally is calculated at prices that are more than two decades old. India had asked the WTO to change the base year (1986-88) for the calculation of food subsidies to a more current base year because of factors such as inflation and change in foreign exchange rates (or currency movements). The reason for that is self-evident: Once India completely implements its food security programme, it could breach the 10 percent WTO cap on subsidies, and breaching of the limit could have invited hefty penalties if a WTO member country dragged India to the world body. The US was the most vociferous opponent to India's stand.

The objection to the WTO subsidy clause was the only step the Narendra Modi government had taken in its more than six months in power that was for the benefit of the country and its people. But now the Modi government says it has reached a deal with Washington, the details of which neither wants to reveal. This raises a lot of questions. Has Modi given in to US pressure? Has Modi swallowed the bait thrown by India's big business and ransomed the country's food security to promote his business-friendly image, which the WTO deal can enhance? (This is obviously a rhetorical question) And what exactly does the deal between Delhi and Washington say?

The answers to the above questions are known. But the answer to what exactly Modi and US President Barack Obama meant by agreeing to cooperate on the "next steps to tackle the challenge posed by HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) to global warming" will remain a mystery. The advantage of using high-sounding terms, which obviously most people across the world, let alone India, don't know (no offense meant to the uninitiated, because generally people are not expected to know every scientific term), is that they sound impressive to the general reader and viewer. Has any mainstream media outlet in India tried to find out the character and nature of HFC, and why it was created in a laboratory?

Had any of them tried to do so, it would have realized that HFC was created to replace HCFC (hydrocholoro-fluorocarbon), used mostly in refrigerators and air-conditioners, because it is a greenhouse gas that depletes the ozone layer which blocks ultraviolet rays from the sun. It would have also realized that HCFC was created to replace CFC (chloroflurocarbon), which was considered more lethal for the ozone layer. Now that HFC too has been "confirmed" as a harmful chemical (it's another matter that it was lethal right from the beginning), the same firms that "invented" CFC and profited from its use and then phase-out have come up with a substitute. The amount of profits that DuPont and Honeywell will earn by ''selling" the substitutes hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs) and HFC-1234yf for normal air-conditioning and car air-conditioning would be humungous. By the way, HFOs and HFC-1234yf are not eco-friendly either because huge amounts of energy are needed to produce them.

These are just minor examples of how the Indian government under Modi is fooling the public, which, going by reports in the mainstream media, which is supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation at the centre, is blindly backing his business-friendly policies.

Before even someone could explain what Modi's government has finalized with the US, comes another shattering announcement by India's coal secretary Anil Swarup: India will allow locally registered foreign companies to mine and sell coal when commercial mining is permitted as part of the opening up of the nationalised industry.

There is no need to read between the lines in this announcement to understand that Modi has decided to privatise the coal sector. The loot of India's natural resources, rampant in mining fields other than coal until now, is now open to one and all. And to facilitate this loot, the Indian government under Modi will spend about $1 billion (about Rs 6,000 crore) by 2019 to buy railway wagons to transport coal from remote mines, on the pretext of ending the "chronic shortage of coal" that cripples power plants and curb the import of coal by the country. If you think the additional electricity generated by the extra coal production will light up houses of the poor and needy, you must be day-dreaming.

Modi has opened the door to global giants like Australia's Rio Tinto and Anglo-Australian firm BHP Billiton to exploit India's natural resources to add to their billions-dollar profits.

The decision also means huge job losses in the world's largest mining company, Coal India, breaking the back of the labour unions and chopping off the company into pieces and selling the stakes to the private sharks and hawks. The death knell for Coal India has already been sounded by the likely selection of Sutirtha Bhattacharya, chairman of India's No. 2 coal producer Singareni Collieries, as the next head of Coal India.

And yes, Coal India's death is going to be slow and painful, because the government intends to auction it off in tranches.

Yes, the coal scam is dirty indeed, especially because UPA ministers and bureaucrats traded India's precious natural resources and the environment to line the pockets of big industrialists and get a share (and a quite a big share, at that) of the booty. But the coal scam about to unfold under Modi will have the protection of law, for it will take place under the pretext of divestment of state assets for the betterment of the state.

The Modi government's murder plan for the Indian Railways is no different only that it is more dangerous.
The Indian Railways has one of the largest networks in the world (63,000 route kilometers). It employs the largest number of people, more than 13 lakhs. It is the sixth-largest employer in the world. It carries passengers and goods to almost every nook and corner of the country. And it has been doing this for decades, more than a century, in fact, without external (read private companies') help. This is an achievement that every Indian should be proud of.

Yet the incumbent dispensation at the centre has decided to sell off this national, actually people's treasure to private enterprises to prove its pro-business and pro-development image. The Modi government is out to kill this institution which has been serving the people with all its strengths and shortcomings for more than one and half century.

Privatisation is an intoxicating word, promoted and popularised by Milton Friedman's Chicago school of economics the world over. To judge its effectiveness, one need go no further than British Rail which Margaret Thatcher started privatising. The result: services deteriorated, and even almost after three decades the punctuality and reliability of British Rail have not improved despite the "rationalisation" (an euphemism for increase) of fares and innumerable promises.

Indian Railways is unique, so are its workers. Nowhere in the world have so many workers come forward to prevent the privatisation of an enterprise. The National Federation of Indian Railwaymen and the All India Railwaymen's Federation have offered their Rs 10,000-crore provident fund deposits for the development of the "cash-starved" national carrier to prevent its privatisation.

The NFIR has also told Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu that an additional Rs 9,000 crore could be freed for use annually, if the railways stops paying dividend to the government, because no other infrastructure ministry does so. The move, the NFIR says, is an attempt to help raise Rs 50,000 crore which the railways needs to lay double tracks on certain sections, and for electrification and improving the signal system.

The unions have also offered to create a permanent source income by allowing leasing of the railways' huge land bank.

But the government is only interested in private and foreign capital, as if the colour and value of money offered by the unions were different. It is interested only in earning the praise (and thus votes) of the middle class by relaxing foreign direct investment (FDI) norms by permitting 100 per cent investment in projects such as high-speed trains, suburban services, dedicated freight corridors, and freight and passenger terminals. The Railway Ministry has notified a list of 17 such areas, including rail route electrification, signalling systems and logistics parks for privatisation. That list is being expanded to accommodate more projects or areas where FDI can be allowed.

The uninformed public will welcome the privatisation in the false belief that private enterprises function better than state organisations and are thus beneficial for the national economy and the Indian people. Sitting in the ivory towers, the politicians will never be able to hear the cries or see the tears of millions of families across the length and breadth of India which will be reduced to penury because of the privatisation of the railways and other public sector organisations.

Neither the mainstream media nor the public, many of whom seem to be intoxicated with the Modi hooch, is ready to see beyond the indrajal that Modi's business- and Hindu-friendly wand seem to have weaved.

Not the only ones
Coal India and Indian Railways are not the only public sector organisations going under the hammer. The government has decided to auction off even the maharatna among the navaratnas of India, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, to private companies.

And there is no one to question why the best-performing public enterprise in the country needs to be divested. A company that earned a profit of $3.8 billion (Rs 23,487 crore) in 2012 is out to be sliced, chopped and handed on platters to private companies. Is it because ONGC sued Reliance for illegally drawing gas from its Bay of Bengal block in May?

It's surprising, though, that here in the 21st century Indians cannot run their coal mines, railways and oil and gas companies, not to talk about other sectors, without foreign help when they were flying aeroplanes, conducting stem cell research and using cosmic weapons 5,000 years ago, that is, if one believes the ''exalted" chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Sudershan Rao. How can even one call Rao a historian when he cannot differentiate between history and mythology?

If, according to Rao, Indian (they are not Hindu) epics, rather than empirical evidence, are enough to understand the ancient world, what about Greek epics and mythology? Do Rao's and Modi's supporters and followers know how similar Greek and Indian mythologies are, how similar the deities and their deeds and misdeeds are, and how similar the battles the mythic Greek and Indian characters fought are?

Mahabharata is one Indian epic that shatters myths, prejudices, caste barriers and the supremacy of might and power. Yet Modi and his cohorts are out to turn it into a joke. Historians have risen against Rao's criminal pranks, but the need is to nail the lie in the most blatant way possible, not least because Modi and his entire Hindutva gang is behind this pre-planned brainwashing drive.

There is need also to neutralise people like Dinanath Batra, who has declared war on India's neighbours like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh by including those countries in his map of India, which has been made part of textbooks in two states. Decades ago E V Ramasamy Periyar said the Brahminical intellectuals (read the ruling class) propagated the myth of classical Indian past to maintain their hegemony over the rest of society. The ruling class is now propagating the same myth, the "nationalisation" of the past, to mislead the people and consolidate its permanent hold on their minds. The ruling class' aim is not to rig the ballots but to rig the minds of the people by "rigging" the textbooks, and it seems to be succeeding in its effort.

Food Security
Perhaps the possibility of this success led Modi to strike a deal with Obama to clear the road to a "grand" WTO deal. But what does this deal mean for the National Food Security Act, 2013? The Food Security Act is aimed at providing subsidised foodgrains to about two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people. The Act is a guarantee for food security programmes, which include Midday Meals, Integrated Child Development Services and the Public Distribution System, and also recognises maternity entitlements.

The other important Act the UPA government passed was the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which even the World Bank was forced to admit was a "stellar example of rural development". Seen in the context of the increasing atrocities on Dalits in the country, it can be said that attempts are afoot to dilute the Acts.

If these attempts have been unofficial until now, the Obama-Modi deal could make it official. If Modi has agreed to limit the value of food subsidies at 10 percent of the total value of India's foodgrain production—perhaps after a certain number of years—the future of the Food Security Act and NRGEA would be in jeopardy. The reason: once India implements its food security programme in totality it would need to provide subsidies of 22 percent of the total value of grains production in India.

Dark Clouds
These are grave times. The power of global, financial and monopoly capital has cast its web across the world. It has created sub-classes in the classical class structure of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie no longer consists only of the class that owns the means of production; it includes the ancient aristocrats, the industrialists, the financial capitalists, the speculators, the merchant class and the very well-paid wage earners employed by big capital. Likewise, the proletariat, the working class, today is divided among many sub-classes, the skilled (including the managerial-level educated class), the semi-skilled, and the unskilled and those that only have their labour to sell for a living, including the vast mass of people in the unorganised sector. The peasants are still the most oppressed in today's globalised world, because the divisions between marginal, share-holding and landless farmers have widened more than ever.

There is no reason to assume that Modi's advisers do not know these facts, for these are the divisions the Modi government is trying to exploit the most to its advantage. The illusive economic development carrot (with the slurpy dressing of Hindutva) dangled by Modi is so alluring, especially for the urban middle class and youths, that the very real stick has become invisible.

This mass blindness (refer to Jose Saramago) encouraged Modi to start his regime by reportedly destroying files of utmost historical importance—among them were many on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the only mass leader India has ever had. He followed it up by scrapping the Planning Commission, which despite some shortcomings was arguably the only official body that ensured some government welfare reached the needy.

Then came Modi's destructive move to cancel (or alter) the previous government's programmes and schemes for the poor, and announcement that land, mining and forest laws would be revised to attract more capital (especially foreign capital) to change India's non-business-friendly image. Which means protests, indigenous people's protests, against mining, like the ones seen in Odisha, Karnataka, Goa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, will be crushed with more brutal force.

The environment, and along with it the people, will now be dictated by the power of capital. The Jindals, Mittals and Poscos will soon be joined by the Rio Tintos and BHP Billitons. It will be a free for all—this all being represented by big business.

The impact of climate change may not spare any country, but it's the poor in every country that are already paying the highest price for the changing weather patterns. From air, water and soil pollution, droughts, floods and shrinking water bodies to cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons and rising sea levels, the effects of climate change threaten to subjugate the already subjugated class further, simply because it has neither the financial power nor the knowledge to overcome the odds.

Depleting fish stocks, failed crops and low yields have come to characterise India's agricultural sector. And now the WTO deal threatens to cut subsidies further. But the WTO is not alone to blame for the impending subsidy crisis, which could paralyse India's farm sector. Indian mainstream economists, planners and think tanks, too, have been demanding the withdrawal of subsidies to the agricultural sector, because they believe they are a drain on the national exchequer. Little do they realise that the masters of the national exchequer are the Indian people, not the politicians.

Very few in the mainstream media or economic field are interested in facts that don't support their own conclusions. They are not interested in the facts the other side of the coin reveals, the not-so rosy side of big business and its exploitative mechanism that is sucking the earth dry and condemning more and more people to doom.

Of course, Modi backers will say that since the environmental advisory council to the Indian government still has Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, as one of its members, how can it be anti-environment. But what is one Pachauri or Nitin Desai among at least nine Modi ministers and as many bureaucrats?

The Need
These are dark times, times to read the shadows. Modi's destructive march has been made possible by the disarray the mainstream political parties across the country are in. With just a 31 percent mandate, Modi has been ruling the country like an autocrat. The media, which still love to call themselves the watchdog of democracy (if India can be described as one, that is), are either singing paeans of Modi or are busy with entertainment (Hindi films, celebrities and their scandals) and cricket. TV channels are full of soaps and ludicrous programmes that don't even shy from objectifying children as beauty products.

The threat of pointing out even the most blatant ills of Modi worship, or for that matter Hindi films and cricket, will antagonise the "lotus eaters" further to any change. It's a tightrope walk indeed, for even the most serious of socially aware people are obsessed either with cricket or Hindi films or Modi's false development paradigm, or all three. Examples of such instances are not rare in history. Many a famous name has fallen to the lure of absolutism. Even the much beloved Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura, whom Bengal sees as a Tagore friend, believed in the superiority of the Asian (nay Japanese) race, which ultimately led the Imperial Japanese Army to commit heinous crimes against humanity before and during World War II.

There appears no proverbial silver lining in the dark clouds of religious extremism or the cliched light at the end of the dark tunnel of poverty, exploitation and the marauding march of Hindutva. The RSS and its cohorts like the VHP and Bajrang Dal, with the BJP in power at the centre, are dictating terms, and inciting hatred and conflict across the country.

But it would be utter defeatism to accept things as they are and only curse the people who seem to be behind Modi for the current state of affairs. These are times to break ideological ranks and form alliances with parties and organisations, even if they are mainstream, if they agree to join the fight against the Hindutva and big-business exploitative brigade.

More than that, these are times for the Left, the mainstream, the extreme and the centrist Left, to form an alliance giving up their dogmas and ideological differences. These are times for social, non-political and environmental organsations, no matter how big or small they are, to close ranks.

If environmentalists have to understand that, irrespective of whether they are for the trees or the animals, the pastures or the mountains, the rivers or the lakes, they are all for the environment, the Left leaders have to realise that, whether they are for a violent revolution or social reforms or parliamentary democracy they are there for social justice. They all have to fathom the truth, if they are true indeed to their cause, if they are for the people, they have to come together for a greater cause, the cause of the country and the cause of the future. And there is no time to wait and ponder.

Vol. 47, No. 26, Jan 4 - 10, 2015