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DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Democracy In Conflict With Free Market Policy

Satya Sivaraman* - TerraViva/IPS

NEW DELHI, Jan 24 2008 (IPS) - Two years ago India was the toast of global investors at the World Economic Forum meet in Davos with the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proudly proclaiming the country as the ‘world’s largest free market democracy’.

Now, the country is on the boil with ‘democracy’ set for a head on collision with the ‘free market’, as a variety of social movements challenge the government’s policies and pitch for changes to safeguard the rights of the urban and rural poor, women and indigenous people.

The question on many minds is whether the scale and intensity of such protests will prove sufficient to make a dent on these policies or prevent the Indian state from resorting to more repressive methods to contain dissent. The jury is still out on what will blink first- democracy or the free market.

Since the ‘opening’ up of the Indian economy two decades ago, under the tutelage of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, over a 150,000 farmers have committed suicide due to indebtedness while a recent state-sponsored national survey showed 70 percent of the Indian population earn less than 20 rupees ( 50 US cents) a day. Yet, the country ranks second only to the United States in the number of home-grown billionaires – 36 at last count.

“India is being subjected to not just economic imperialism by the developed world, but also internal colonisation of the people by India’s elites,’’ says Amit Bhaduri, a well respected Indian economist.

On Jan. 26 several activist groups in India and other parts of South Asia will join the call given by the World Social Forum process for a ‘Global Day of Action’ and add to this growing stream of protests in the sub-continent.

“We are participating in the Global Day of Action to protest against the Indian government’s attempt to open up the coastal region to investment from the tourism and other industries that threaten the livelihood of traditional fishing folk,” says T.Peter, President of the Kerala Fishworkers Union, based in the coastal city of Trivandrum in southern India. Joining hands with groups around the globe, he hopes, will help his local constituency put greater pressure on Indian policy makers to roll back their plans.

Like in the case of the fish workers, many of the other protests taking place in India and around South Asia are also linked to local or regional issues. For example, on Jan. 26, there will be public meetings on the issue of farmers suicides and the crisis of Indian agriculture in Mumbai while in Dhaka, Bangladesh around 10,000 people are expected to rally for safe shelter. In Pakistan, under a dictatorship and reeling from sectarian conflict, a meeting for a nuclear-free South Asia has been planned to be held in Lahore.

“It is interesting that every group taking part in the WSF process interprets the global movement for social justice in their own unique way,” says Jai Sen of the Indian Centre for Critical Action-Centre in Movement or CACIM, that carries out research on social movements.

One of the issues that galvanised a lot of resistance from activist groups in India throughout 2007 was against the concept of ‘Special Economic Zones’ or SEZs promoted by the Indian government in the past few years as a quick way of attracting both foreign and domestic investment to speed up industrialisation. Inspired by similar zones in China, which were set up in the eighties, the Indian version too envisages low-taxation enclaves with relaxed laws on labour rights and environmental standards where industry can have a free playing field in the pursuit of profit.

The main allegation against SEZs is that farmers are being forced to sell their land and lose their occupations, and that state governments and corporate developers are profiteering.

“Many of the SEZs are simply property deals. Developers hope to acquire cheap land, put in a minimum of infrastructure and sell it. Only 35 percent of the land area of a SEZ needs to be used for industrial acivities as per the SEZ Act,” says Aseem Srivastava, an independent researcher/activist who is studying the impact of SEZs on farmers and the poor.

The protests have had their impact with at least one major SEZ project at Nandigram in the eastern Indian province of West Bengal getting cancelled while a slew of other similar projects have been put on hold in other parts of India. In the popular tourist destination of Goa in western India the anti-SEZ movement has forced the provincial government to call for a scrapping of the SEZ policy altogether.

The overall results of protests against neo-liberal policies have been mixed. On the one hand they have succeeded in slowing down the pace at which reforms have been introduced. On the other, the direction of the Indian economy has continued inexorably towards more and more concessions for the rich and withdrawal of support for the poor.

One of the reasons for this may be the fact that the resistance is scattered and has not been able to put together a broad enough coalition of forces that can together force the Indian state to drastically overhaul its current set of policies.

” Trade unions and other organisations affiliated to political parties used to be part of the WSF (India) process in the earlier days but now there is very little exchange between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ style movements,” says Jai Sen.

Other activists point out that the WSF process is seen as large events at the national and international level and not about involving grass root movements. There needs to be more WSF-style processes at the local levels and a genuine attempt made to build bridges between different types of movements working broadly for the same objectives, they say.

” The Kerala Fishworkers Union was never part of the WSF process and yet decided to respond to the call for a Global Day of Action, and the fact is that many groups long-associated with the WSF don’t seem to be doing enough,” says K.P.Sasi, a film maker who is active with groups working for the rights of coastal people.

Harsh as Sasi’s comment may sound few would dispute that it is well-meaning, or that it describes ground realities.

(*This story, published by the TerraViva on Jan. 15, has been re-edited for the IPS news service.)

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