Thursday, July 26, 2007

On Sen, The Telegraph and the Distorted Debate

This ‘industry-agriculture’ debate tirelessly highlighted in the media is itself ‘self-defeating’ (and one suspects designedly so). In this belated comment on Sen's interview and The Telegraph's gloating, smug presentation of the inevitability of industrialisation on agricultural land as attested by Sen a.k.a. the Economic God, I will try to show how.

a) We are all asked to be exceedingly interested in overarching economic models. By the media, and by (of course) economists themselves. Whether industrialisation is needed or not. Whether prime agricultural land is needed or not. What the 'laws of the market' (like sovereign laws of nature) require or don't. Whether it is for the 'public good' or not. And so on and so forth. I will, very impertinently, suggest that the land acquisition issue is, however, not primarily about the viability or otherwise of larger economic models like those currently in vogue. It is about more trivial and immediate things like human rights to livelihood, about democracy and participation, about human choice and control over one's future. It's about being able to talk to the powers-that-be on equal terms when such things such as a community's livelihood are at stake, and being able to truly decide for themselves on their own terms instead of having abstract economic logic (whether right or wrong is NOT the point) force-fed to them, or condescendingly offered to be gulped down eagerly. Essentially, it's about DEMOCRACY. Which should entail and empower sections of the 'public' to question power, demand accountability and stake their rights when being coerced (whether to destitution or compensation is again secondary as a question) for higher things like the 'public good', but which in our state and country doesn't. And the media talk of economics!!

b) The glorification of large-scale and abstract models in the media also glosses over immediate questions of accountability and responsibility that should be so paramount as an issue when 'public good' is being cited in a democracy. Sen and other economists may (rightly or wrongly again is secondary) proclaim that such industrialisation will eventually create jobs etc. etc., but will they take responsibility if five years later someone from Singur turns up saying that s/he has run out of money, has no land left to farm and can't find a job? Will someone like Ratan Tata claim responsibility, who has 'promised' 10,000 jobs but given nothing in writing, not even signing a public land-deed over a deal that was for some months shrouded in mystery? There was NO public discussion or scrutiny over the Singur deal, NO public, govt-attested document citing the terms of jobs promised. Who would care about the viability of larger models when such immediate responsibilities are shrouded by both the Government, the Corporate and the Media? And, how accountable is the larger model itself when the micro-level of this particular deal itself is not? Who guarantees, and who pays? Then again, all these questions would make sense only in a democracy, but we don't seem to be living in one, only in an economists' and planners' utopia where such trivial queries pale before their grand, oh-so-correct plans.

c) OK, to return to economics itself. What is happening is that we are seeing a liaison of grand capitalist programmes with a socialist, state-led planning system that effortlessly cites 'public good' while upholding the market as god. This creates a self-contradictory juggernaut that is nevertheless very hard to resist. What also happens can be summed up as follows:
1- There is a Public-Private conflation in that the 'public' aim of state planning seems to effortlessly couple with the private profit of individual and particular industrialists. This is extremely dangerous for democracy, as then the interests of some people immediately start to count more than the voices of thousands of others. Some citizens with more money ('investors') count much more than thousands of other citizens, for at least the State, which has the mechanisms of power. Even if we argue that what these few citizens are doing will ultimately result in the well-being of all (which is what the economists argue), one can't deny that the balance of voices so essential to maintain public discussion in a democracy is upset irredeemably, and the question of accountability also suffers, as then those thousands lose their voice and right to question and demand responsibility of the few with the money. If these few citizens like Ratan Tata are a priori valued ahead of others (because they have the money and thus seem to hold the reins of the economy), who is to oversee that they live up to, and fulfill, those grand promises? Rather, their demands are catered to (like where they want land, on what terms, etc.) on the combined force of 'market law' (good land will 'naturally' be in more demand) and the 'public good' (hence in contravention of those same 'market laws' the state can snatch land even when the farmers refuse to sell.) So the 'market' is invoked when it is to the interest of the investors, but NOT when the farmers exercise their rights within the market by refusing to sell - similarly, the 'state' is invoked when needed to acquire land from farmers, and NOT to compel accountability from the industrialists. Thus, the free market logic is called upon selectively, when needed. This is, quite obviously, the self-suiting logic of the powerful. And we are all buying it, literally, even as we buy our daily newspapers.
3) Lastly, socioeconomic changes seem to hinge only upon the will of the elite, to the extent of a desperate appeasing of them on their terms - lest invite the investors and lick their feet, soon the state will shine much like the rest of India. Other avenues of positive change, like encouraging smaller entrepreneurs like hawkers, building up the SMEs, building up regional trade among rural markets, etc., are ignored and unexplored.

To sum up - one suspects that the real question we face today is NOT whether 'industry' or 'agriculture', but whether democracy. The sooner we recognise this the better.