For some months now, I have been thinking of someone whom I saw on television during the parliamentary election campaign. The place was Benaras and Modi’s candidature from the seat had just been declared. The television journalist was interviewing a group of clearly poor people, taking their reactions on this new, though expected development. This person, fairly drunk in his Modi-elixir – and perhaps also a bit literally drunk – swaggered as he answered, affirming his support for Modi: Modi bhi chaiwala hai, hum bhi chaiwala hain (Modi is also a tea-seller and I am also a tea-seller). His words reflected the success of the remarkable gamble – that of projecting the new poster boy of corporate capital as a humble tea-seller. It was clear how so many of the poor had bought into this campaign.
What reminded me of this person initially, was that very soon after the election results were out, even before the government was formed, ‘team Modi’ announced a series of measures for the development of Benaras, which included the building of 60 flyovers – ‘to ease traffic congestion’. Mainly meant for the benefit of smooth flow of motorized traffic (rikshas, cycles and pedestrians, after all, have little place in the economy of the flyover), this was the beginning of a plan that would transform this holy city. If the experience of building flyovers anywhere in India is any experience, this would additionally mean mass demolition of settlements of the poor, shops and even entire informal markets – including tea shops that have long been part of life of local communities.
Then the government took office. Within a couple of months, the plan for Varanasi’s upgradation started being drawn up more concretely. Not everything in the proposed subsequent plan (end July 2014) seemed objectionable -not the least the idea to work on a possible mono rail, improvement of the bus network, and a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) like the one in Ahmedabad. Except that this would mean more and more dislocation of the poor and destruction of their livelihoods. We have seen this happen in city after city in India, including in Delhi.
Finally, as the prime minister embarked on his global sojourn, an agreement was signed whereby Japan would help develop Benaras into a ‘smart city’. What exactly this means is not very clear except that it is supposed to be hi-tech, networked through information technologies and, minus all the frills, embodying business-led urban development. The cities, in short, have to be business friendly. The fundamental point is that, the model for Benaras and for all other Indian cities that this government is putting in place, will be designed with the automobile and the rich at the centre. Where our enthusiastic chai-seller will figure in this recasting of the city is anybody’s guess.
Modi and his supporters can of course, always argue that they made no secret of what their model of development was – and he is doing exactly what he said he would.
This model of an ‘India Rising’, as we have been informed recently, is based on ‘the yearning to defeat defeatism’, that is to say, the UPA II’s inability to act with determination: “Policy paralysis was the anodyne technical term to describe this state. Underneath was a vast nervousness about whether India could actually change.” And this “was the moment Modi stepped into with political finesse…”
We have noted earlier on Kafila that this so-called ‘policy paralysis’ bemoaned by our media commentators and corporate cheer-leaders has little to do with matters relating to common people. On matters like forest rights, food security, environmental protection and labour welfare, there were real developments. ‘Policy paralysis’ – and therefore defeatism – was always a code that meant that corporate capital was not being given free rein to loot the resources and people of the country. At least not the extent they wanted. There is little doubt that the UPA regime too was pro-corporate – it could not have been any different, given the forces it represented and the deep levels of corruption that tied it to different sections of big capital. Nevertheless it was a regime that was still susceptible to some kinds of mass pressures and social movement interventions. That it had put in place schemes like MNREGA or enacted legislations like the Forest Rights Act or the RTI, that it drew up the Food Security Bill – all these were things that bothered neoliberals and corporates alike. As we will see below, the attack on the UPA government and its supposed ‘policy paralysis’ was actually a smokescreen for wanting to do away with precisely these measures that came about through some degree of democratic negotiation.
Some Achievements of the Past Six Months
The very first move of the new government was its attack on one of the linchpins of democratic government: transparency. Not just government officers but even ministers were forbidden from interacting with the media or making any public pronouncements about anything to do with the government. Liberals who should know the value of transparency better than anybody else, had – and continue to have – nothing to say on this matter. And yet, this was precisely the move that enabled the government to move swiftly towards fulfilling its obligations to the corporate sector for its continued plunder of the country’s natural commons.
War on Environment
In the first 50 days itself, long before formal policy changes were announced, the government ‘gave environmental clearance’ (read waived clearance) for five infrastructural projects. According to a Business Standard report, “the projects given clearance include(d) Adani Ports’ Mundra special economic zone (SEZ) in Gujarat, two coal mining projects – Coal India Limited (CIL)’s Tikak block in Assam and Reliance Power’s Chhatrasal block in Madhya Pradesh (MP), GAIL’s gas-based power plant in MP and a state highway renovation project in Assam. These projects are worth around Rs 2,570 crore (excluding Adani Ports, as the environment clearance documents do not mention the cost details of that project).” The background to this, though well-known, bears repeating:
Adani and Reliance Power’s Sasan projects became controversial during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tenure. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pulled up the UPA government alleging Rs 29,033-crore financial gains to R-Power for coal allotment to Sasan ultra mega power project. The Chhatrasal block was among the three captive coal blocks allotted to Sasan Power. The CAG report had called for a review of allocation of the Chhatrasal coal block for the Sasan power plant. The project was given a go-ahead by the environment ministry on July 11. The coal block, having reserves of over 160 million tonnes, will fuel Reliance Power’s 4,000 MW Sasan and 4,000 MW Chitrangi power projects. The Gujarat high court had in January this year ordered the closure of the 12 out of 21 operational units in the Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone due to lack of environment clearances.
The very first three months saw what has been called ‘Modi government’s silent war on the environment‘, Nayantara Narayanan enumerates as many as seven key initiatives that open out, in unprecedented fashion, the path for relentless corporate plunder. These include:
1. Taking away the right of tribal village councils to oppose an industrial project: “The National Democratic Alliance government is looking to discard a provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, that requires the “prior informed consent” of gram sabhas before their forests are cleared for industrial activity. The Act, implemented in 2008, recognises the rights of indigenous tribes over forestlands, asking these groups to certify that their rights have not been violated by an upcoming project.”
2. Exempting coal mining from public hearings, allowing irrigation projects without clearances: “The Environment Ministry has allowed coalmines with a capacity of less than 16 million tons per annum to expand without conducting a public hearing. The cut-off for this exemption used to be 8 mtpa. The ministry has also cleared the one-time expansion of mines with capacity greater than 20 mtpa if the expansion is restricted to 6 mtpa…
Irrigation projects affecting less than 2,000 hectares will no longer require environmental clearances. Those occupying less than 10,000 hectares can be cleared by the state governments.”
3. Lifting the moratorium on new industries in critically polluted areas: “In September 2013, the United Progressive Alliance’s environment ministry directed the Central Pollution Control Board to reassess the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index, an important criterion for project clearance, while keeping intact the moratorium on new industries in critically-polluted areas.
But even before the review is completed, the ministry under Prakash Javadekar has lifted the moratorium in eight critically polluted areas – Ghaziabad, Indore, Jharsuguda, Ludhiana, Panipat, Patancheru-Bollaram, Singrauli and Vapi.”
4. Diluting forest norms and allowing industry to creep closer to national parks: “The environment ministry has changed a provision of the Environmental Impact Assessment rules to allow projects to come up within 5 km of a protected area without clearance from the now-toothless National Board for Wildlife. The earlier rule made NBWL clearance mandatory for projects in these eco-sensitive zones unless they were 10 km or more away.”
On Land Acquisition
Ever since the great anti-land acquisition struggles of Singur and Nandigram made a decisive impact, forcing both the state government of West Bengal and the central UPA government on the backfoot, there has been a raging debate about the issue. Singur and Nandigram actually turned the spotlight on many of the earlier anti-displacement land struggles that have been going on for years. The Nandigram moment forced a fresh re-examination of the issue, including the all-important point about whether this should be the task of a government at all. Especially in a market economy, does it make any sense for a government to forcibly acquire peasants’ or tribal people’s land in order to pass them on to private corporations? It was under the impact of the massive reappraisal of this and related issues, and subsequent struggles like the one in Bhatta Parsaul, that the UPA government was forced to review and amend the land acquisition law and bring in a new legislation, namely, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. This has been described as a ‘landmark legislation’ and along with the issue of environmental clearances, constitutes the crux of the ‘defeatism’ of which the government was accused by the corporate sector. Little wonder then that almost simultaneously, the Modi government moved to make sweeping changes in the land acquisition laws. Thus, according to a Hindustan Times report in mid-July:
The rural development ministry would be asking the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to relax norms to acquire land for projects by scrapping mandatory consent provision for public private partnership (PPP) projects and reducing it to 50% from the existing 80% for private acquisition.
The slew of changes in the land acquisition law 2013 for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approval means that consent of half of the affected families would be enough to acquire land by private parties, a move aimed at improving investor sentiment.
The corporate world had cried foul at the 80% consent clause saying it would make winning acquisition approvals impossible. Sympathetic towards their concerns, rural development minister Nitin Gadkari had said a proposal on changes in the law would be submitted to the PM.
The ministry would also be suggesting to the PMO that people’s view will not matter if any public agency was participating in the project.
The changes proposed to overhaul the law enacted in 2013 also includes lifting a ban on acquisition of multi-crop land making 48% of the total 179 million of hectares of total agricultural land available for acquisition. The present law limited acquisition option only for waste-land and single crop agriculture land.
The ministry also wants that provision for appraising the projects on its impact on livelihood of people, called social impact assessment, for all projects be done away with as it could delay in execution of the projects. (All emphasis added)
The proposals are quite self-explanatory – except for the subterfuge that it is the rural development ministry that is requesting the prime minister’s office to implement the said changes. Anyone even remotely aware of the ways of functioning of this government knows that there is only one person who takes all the decisions! What all this will mean for the future of the poorer populations as well as for the larger question of food security can easily be imagined.
‘Make In India’ and Labour ‘Reforms’
And so finally, we come to the grand dream of making India the manufacturing hub of the world economy: the much hyped ‘Make in India’ campaign. This declaration, made from the ramparts of Red Fort in Independence day too had sent liberal commentators swooning over the new visionary leader that they had suddenly discovered.
The proverbial cat, however, is now finally out of the bag, for the slogan to ‘Make in India’ is an invitation to global corporate capital to come loot and plunder the natural commons, to destroy the environment, to dispossess populations made dispensable and to exploit cheap Indian labour; it is an invitation to global corporations who are being forced out of their home countries because high environmental and labour costs have been long been eating into their profits. Whether or not the notorious Lawrence Summers Memo of 1991 that talked of moving ‘dirty’ industries to the third world was a serious policy proposal or a mere sarcastic prank, the Modi government seems to have internalized its impeccable economic logic. China was the trail blazer in this regard and one can already see the devastating impact it has had on daily life in China. Even as GDP soars to the skies, daily life gets more and more insecure and violent. That is the direction that the new government has chosen to take India in the name of making India the manufacturing hub of the world. Yes, there will always be people to point out how GDP growth has meant more employment and money circulating among ordinary people at large, but these are the classically myopic economics-drunk people who have not spent a minute thinking about what all this means in the longer run.
And thus it happened that the most opaque government ever that India has had, has now unveiled a whole series of labour reforms in order “to boost transparency and create a business friendly environment“. Not surprising, then, that “Industry lauds the changes”. The pilot project, as it were, of the BJP/Modi government’s labour reforms was put in place, in Rajasthan, in the end of July, when the state assembly passed Bills amending four major Acts concerning labour. These amendments to the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, the Contract Labour Act and the Apprenticeship Act basically make it easier for industrialists to fire workers and make the formation of trade unions more difficult. Says a Business Standard report:
The amendments proposed in the Industrial Disputes Act include empowering employers to retrench up to 300 employees without permission of the government. At the moment, the upper limit is 100 employees. Plus, in case of retrenchment, a worker should raise an objection within three months. At present, there is no time limit. The proposed amendment also says a trade union can be formed only if it gets 30 per cent of the total workers as members. The figure is 15 per cent at the moment.
That this was a pilot project of sorts and would be replicated wherever the BJP was in power, with the full backing of the Centre was evident from the following statement of the Union labour minister:
Earlier this month, Union labour minister Narendra Singh Tomar had said states could change labour laws according to local need and political conditions. “Our effort at the Centre would be to strike a balance between business and labour communities…If a state goes ahead with amendments apropos to their local, economic, political and social conditions, it is a healthy practice,” he’d told Business Standard on July 2.
And to Cap It All – Surrender Before Drug Companies
According to a report in DNA, shortly before Modi departed for the United States, the government issued a circular directing the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority to withdraw its earlier guidelines that had capped the prices of 108 important drugs related to treatment of tuberculosis, hear ailments, cancer, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. The result of this firman was the sudden spurt in the prices of these important medicines. Sample this from the report:
Government decision to decontrol prices of 108 drugs — used to treat tuberculosis, AIDS, diabetes and heart ailments — has jacked up their prices. In some cases, prices have seen an unbelievable rise.
The price of Glivec, an anti-cancer tablet, for example, has risen from Rs 8,500 to Rs 1.08 lakh.
Plavix, used to treat blood pressure and heart ailments, will cost Rs 1,615, against the earlier Rs 147. An anti-rabi injection, Kamrab, priced at Rs 2,670, will now cost Rs 7,000.
While drug companies claim that these are not essential drugs but those linked to ‘life-style diseases’, the fact is that these are precisely the consequence of our new ‘developed’ environment. The fact is that we live today in the middle of a cancer epidemic, produced by a range of radiation and toxicity all around us. Take this fact: the number of known cancer patients in India is around 11 lakhs while in the USA, one out of three Americans suffers from some form of cancer in his or her lifetime. The cost of cancer drugs in the USA has become an important cause of increasing number of bankruptcies. The cost of a new drug stands at well over US$ 100, 000 per year, according to Dr Leonard Saltz, chief gastrointestinal oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering – one of America’s premier cancer centers. Some extracts from an interview that can be accessed here:
Cancer is so pervasive that it touches virtually every family in this country. More than one out of three Americans will be diagnosed with some form of it in their lifetime. And as anyone who’s been through it knows, the shock and anxiety of the diagnosis is followed by a second jolt: the high price of cancer drugs.
They are so astronomical that a growing number of patients can’t afford their co-pay, the percentage of their drug bill they have to pay out-of-pocket. This has led to a revolt against the drug companies led by some of the most prominent cancer doctors in the country.
Dr. Leonard Saltz: We’re in a situation where a cancer diagnosis is one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy…
Lesley Stahl: So, are you saying in effect, that we have to start treating the cost of these drugs almost like a side effect from cancer?
Dr. Leonard Saltz: I think that’s a fair way of looking at it. We’re starting to see the term “financial toxicity” being used in the literature. Individual patients are going into bankruptcy trying to deal with these prices.
Lesley Stahl: The general price for a new drug is what?
Dr. Leonard Saltz: They’re priced at well over $100,000 a year.
Lesley Stahl: Wow.
Dr. Leonard Saltz: And remember that many of these drugs, most of them, don’t replace everything else. They get added to it. And if you figure one drug costs $120,000 and the next drug’s not going to cost less, you’re at a quarter-million dollars in drug costs just to get started.
The game is serious and the stakes are very, very high. Is it very surprising then that as our new visionary prime minister acts decisively to take the country into that dystopic future that is, in a sense, already here, we have intellectuals lining up to tell us how important this war to ‘defeat defeatism’ is?
Is it at all surprising that the prime minister should then have chosen the very appropriate metaphor of the ‘bitter pill’ in order to underline that he would have to take some tough decisions.
The PM’s blunt message after his vigorous “acchey din aane waale hai” campaign is seen as an attempt to temper expectations over any dramatic turnaround of the economic situation while preparing the ground for unpopular measures.
“Taking tough decisions and strong measures in the coming one or two years are needed to bring financial discipline which will restore and boost the country’s self-confidence”, Modi told party cadres.
“I need to take some harsh decisions and administer some bitter medicine in order to resuscitate this patient. The medicine may hurt some of you but I ask for your support at this time,” he added later at a separate event. – Times of India, June 15, 2014
“The medicine may hurt some of you but I ask for your support at this time” – that is the supreme confidence of the Leader who is convinced that the people so love him that they would prefer to perish than do anything to annoy him.
But what Modi has started is a war not just on the environment, but a class war on the poor of this country. It is not a war that he will win uncontested.