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Celeb crusades & the death of politics P.

Sainath

The Lok Sabha constituencies of Mumbai averaged over 60 per cent voting between 1957 and 1977. All years of politics, workers rights, unions, historic policy decisions, rising consciousness and ideological debates.
The barrage of celebrity propaganda to get out there to vote had an impact in Mumbai. Voting fell by 6 per cent. Well, okay, thats being facetious. But had the voting risen, it would certainly have been credited in good measure to the celebrity campaigns, 26/11 and the medias untiring appeals to an ungrateful electorate. Urged by a special song campaign from a well-meaning Bangalorebased rock band to Shut up and vote, too many Mum baikars paid heed to only the first part of that exhortation. (As did voters in Bangalore, too.) In Mumbai, voting was 41.41 per cent this time around as compared to 47.15 per cent in 2004. Corporate medias cutest efforts failed to arrest a decline in voting percentage. Nor did corporate-sponsored events and NGO activism fare any better. The Facebook fraternity, and e-activism didnt come out of it too well either (raising questions about real IT penetration even in this wealthy city). That was so even in the constituency that received more space and time than any other south Mumbai, which saw 40.33 per cent polling (2004: 44.22%). Nor did the expected level of anger over 26/11 materialise much beyond the television studios. There is now a similar trauma over 30/04 (voting day). Many rural constituencies in Maharashtra, despite a relative fall in turnout, saw higher voting than Mumbai. Even after the polling day, the focus was on how Bollywood stepped up to the challenge of voting. The largest English daily (including its captive tabloid and city supplement) had as many as 11 items across 8 pages on celebrity, mostly Bollywood, voting in Mumbai. These ran with heaps of pictures, featuring around

50 film world personae and assorted other celebs, kicking off with the main front-page photograph. Just in case this was all too subtle for readers, the items ran helpful headlines. Bollyvote. Filmdom flashes finger with pride. City hi-fliers step out to get inked. What a star cast. And Glam quotient: Mumbais celebrities step out in style. One small item framed Shilpa Shettys edict that elections have to be taken seriously. She regretted being unable to follow this advice herself, being in Durban for the IPL. Ms Shetty is not alone, though. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar did vote in the earlier round, but whizzed off to Durban less than a week later. The national leader and potential Prime Minister had pressing business there. Um, yes, with the IPL. And so he left to attend to it before the Mumbai voting, leaving the slog overs to the tail-enders. My favourite, though, was the charge of the Lightbulb Brigade on television. One celebrity urged everybody to vote. I vote every year, he said earnestly. Every year? Oh, the blessings of democracy. Another phrased it better, saying he voted every time. (Though, given his age, it couldnt have been too many times.) On the whole, slumdogs vote in larger numbers than the white-ribbon, candlelight crowds do. The final figure of a constituency is an average of how its different segments, sections and socio-economic groups voted. Even Malabar Hill has many poor voters. Generally, the poor vote in greater numbers. (The rich capture governments by other means.) The poor usually want to use the vote. It is the one instrument of democracy they get to exercise. But across the country, not just in Mumbai, millions are affected when elections are held in April-May. It is around this time that many regions see their largest exodus of migrant labour. Those workers do not get to vote. We take school and college examination schedules into account while fixing poll dates and rightly so. But we take no note of the survival schedules of the poor.

In the diverse city of Mumbai, more than half the population lives in the slums and on the streets. Many who would vote are not registered. Several have had their status questioned. More so after slum demolitions, shifting and multiple relocations. Many, even if they are registered to vote in Mumbai, tend to go back to their villages (in Maharashtra or elsewhere) when given a break as in this times four-day weekend. So even voting among the poorer sections is affected. April-May is also the marriage season in many parts of the country. In Vidarbha, for instance, priests and astrologers had long ago declared April 16 (the voting day there) to be one of the most auspicious days for weddings. That too impacts on voting. The horoscope seers, alas, also fail each time to inform the Election Commission that temperatures of 46 degrees Celsius do not throw up the most auspicious days for voting. For the urban middle classes, this is vacation time. Nobody sees it as a great time to vote. But with Mumbais Beautiful People, having whipped up a lather over how things have changed with 26/11, a sense of letdown is inescapable. It is also, given the realities, quite overdone. There is even, face it, the apathy of the comfortable. Those who might well explode in drawing-room or television studio outrage about high taxes and 26/11. But who see no real need to fiddle with the status quo. The comfort zone classes exist and are more urban than rural. See the difference between voting in rural Karnataka and Bangalore. There is also, for the non-comfort zone classes, the small matter of issues. When last did the problems of food price rise, BPL cards, or ration quotas, dominate campaigns in either the Lok Sabha or the State Assembly polls? Or those of, sanitation, water, housing, demolitions and jobs? For millions in Indias megapolis, as elsewhere, these are very real issues. Its a long time since anyone in Mumbai articulated a vision that integrates these basics into a national platform or perspective. The same failure also helped produce lower voting in other towns and even rural regions beyond Mumbai.

It has much to do with the death of politics. Even the BJPs Hindutva crusade and the Shiv Senas shrillest campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s did not result in Mumbais best voter turnouts. Has low voting always been the rule here? No. The Lok Sabha constituencies of Mumbai averaged over 60 per cent voting for 20 years between 1957 and 1977. All years of politics, workers rights, unions, historic policy decisions and rising consciousness. There were ideological debates around economic, social and foreign policy. In this city, Krishna Menon took on J.B. Kripalani and George Fernandes slugged it out with S.K. Patil. The ordinary Mumbaikars level of political participation was stunning. Bollywood did not rule although even the films of the time were more ideological. Sure, jobs, hunger, rations, food prices are local issues even highly personal ones. They are also intensely national problems as well. (Last year, food prices were a global issue.) The price of bread has often proved the price of power. In the present round, many well-meaning awareness-raising groups brought no politics to their voting drive. Vote, you must vote! Dont fail to vote. For whom? For what? And why? One critic likened this to urging people to rush to get married without knowing who their partners might be. At points, the campaigns even raised this sense in young people of voting to feel good about yourself. Not for any political reason. Some of the groups asked voters to focus on the individual candidates. Not his or her political platform. So its okay if your clean candidate has a genocidal political agenda. This cannot help much with a young generation already depoliticised. And exposed daily to the media scorn of politics and all that goes with it. In Mumbai, perhaps, the voting would have been higher had Vilasrao Deshmukhs government still been around. One of that gentlemans last acts as Chief Minister was to visit the Taj Hotel after the terror attacks with his film actor son and a prominent Bollywood film maker, offending just about

everybody. Had he remained in power after that, there might have been higher polling in the city. Against the Congress. At the end of it, voting levels fell in Mumbai. And elsewhere, too. It was curious then, to see one discussion on Maharashtra on television. The panellists wondered if the prospect of Mr. Pawar as Prime Minister would evoke a burst of Maharashtrian pride. And if this would see the NCP-Congress alliance make huge gains. (As the channels opinion poll suggested it would.) Now, the alliance could indeed make gains in the State, but would that be the reason? Problem: the decline in voting in Mr. Pawars bastions in western Maharashtra has been, in relative terms, even greater than that in Mumbai. In Baramati, that decline (compared to 2004) was over six per cent. In Satara, over seven per cent. In Sangli over eight per cent and in Solapur over 10 per cent. If that is an outburst of pride, it is a very humble pride. Try issues, ideology, politics and decent election schedules. That could bring out far more voters any day, in Mumbai or elsewhere.

OPINION The dull days of White Gold Across India, cotton growers make up the largest group of the over 180,000 farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. There's nothing like an election to spur policy change, though, notes P Sainath.

08 April 2009 - They called it White Gold. In 1972, you could buy 15 grams of gold with what you earned from producing one quintal of cotton. In Vidarbha, for instance, you made Rs.340 for that quintal (long staple). And gold went at Rs.220 for 10 grams (Rs.330 for 15). True, the cotton growers were even then subsidising rich textile barons in Mumbai. They still do - a lot more, in fact. But 'back then' seems a lot better right now, relatively speaking.

By the 1990s, that trend had been reversed. From the 1970s to mid-1985, cotton was, as Vijay Jawandia calls it, "the poor man's cloth." Man-made fabric was all the rage. By the end of the 1980s, however, a growing bias towards natural fibre saw cotton emerge as the rich man's cloth. All the big brand names were cashing in on cotton. Yet, cotton farmers in the poorer nations were doing worse. Corporations and traders were doing better. By the mid to late 1990s, obscene subsidies to cotton growers from the United States and the European Union were already pulling the prices downwards. By 2005, you needed to sell five quintals of cotton to buy 15 grams of gold. By early 2008, gold was at Rs.12,125 for 10 grams, cotton at Rs. 2000 a quintal. You now needed to sell nine quintals of cotton to buy 15 grams of gold. The living standards of farmers in cotton-growing regions like Vidarbha had fallen sharply. Cotton prices and incomes were crashing, debt and cultivation costs soaring. The 2004 Lok Sabha polls saw a wave of farmer anger - and the BSP's rise - bludgeon the Congress. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won 10 of the then 11 seats in Vidarbha. But in the Maharashtra Assembly polls just months later, the Congress did better. It took 30 of the 66 seats from the region. True, Sonia Gandhi's visit had a huge impact in this traditionally pro-Congress cotton belt. Turning down prime ministership further enhanced the respect she enjoyed there. But the Congress campaign captured voters with a single promise. It would raise the cotton prices - then Rs.2200 a quintal - to Rs.2700. That promise was to be betrayed just months after the polls - with terrible consequences. In Maharashtra, cotton never received the support that sugarcane did. It was grown in poor regions by dryland farmers with far less political clout than the Pawars of western Maharashtra. As India embraced neo-liberal globalism, that clout waned further. On the one hand, cotton-growers were locked into the volatility of global prices. On the other, input costs were exploding. Local seed cost around Rs.9 a kilogram in 1991. By 2004, commercial seed had taken over

and could cost as much as Rs.1,650 to Rs.1,800 for just 450 grams, thanks to Monsanto's Bt cotton. State intervention later brought the price down to half that. But the damage had been done. And even today's price of Rs.650-850 for less than half a kg is still many times higher than Rs.9 a kg. In Maharashtra, the State actively promoted the costly Bt seed, its own agency being a distributor. Huge sums also went to promoting it by using film stars as "brand ambassadors." Other inputs, fertilizer, pesticide, utilities like water and electricity, all saw a big rise in costs from the mid to late 1990s. Cotton covers about 5 per cent of cultivable area in India, but accounts for 55 per cent of all pesticides used. (That is in itself a huge problem with alarming long-term consequences for agriculture, environment and health as a whole.) With the massive spread of these, it is no surprise that most farmers taking their lives swallowed chemical pesticides to do so. They are so easy to access, perhaps far more so in this sector. Successive Indian governments did nothing to stop the dumping of subsidised U.S. cotton in this country. There are no duties on import of cotton today. India is the second biggest producer of what is one of the world's most widely traded commodities. Yet between 1997-98 and 2004-05, we imported 115 lakh bales. That is, over three times the number we did in the preceding 25 years. This cheap imported cotton further devastated growers here. At the same time, like millions of other small farmers, they found bank loans harder and harder to access as rural credit shrank - by policy. Credit was increasingly diverted towards urbanmetro consumption. Many farmers turned to moneylenders, ending up mired in debt. While poor cotton farmers never developed much political and electoral clout, traders and textile barons did. Even if the barons were to pay a slightly better price - say an additional Rs.2 per metre of raw material went to the farmer - it would make a difference. It never happened.

By 2005, cotton prices collapsed. That's when the Maharashtra government withdrew the Rs.500 per quintal "advance bonus" normally tagged on to the minimum support price (MSP) in the State. This saw the price plunging to Rs.1,700 a quintal. (Gold was at Rs.6,180 for ten grams.) Suicides in Vidarbha, already rising, shot up massively. By September 2006, farmers in that region were killing themselves at the rate of one every six hours on average. The Vilasrao Deshmukh government had withdrawn the advance bonus in 2005 despite appeals from cotton growers, the National Commission for Farmers and many others. The next year, Vidarbha, indeed all of Maharashtra, recorded its worst rise in farm suicides ever. If the Deshmukh government could get away with that, it was because cotton had no strong lobby. Its electoral clout was feeble. Across India, cotton growers make up the largest group of the over 180,000 farmers who committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. The cumulative impact of all these processes was crushing farmers locked into this model of production and into neo-liberal economics. In Vidarbha, for the first time ever, farmers grew more soybean than cotton as losses on the latter were killing them, literally. There's nothing like an election to spur policy change, though. In the run-up year to the polls, the Union government came through with its Rs.71,000 crore loan waiver for indebted farmers. In Maharashtra, the lion's share of that waiver's benefits went to just seven of the State's 35 districts, none of them in the poor cotton-growing regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada. Most of them within the power base of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. And all this was about bank debt. Moneylender debt was not touched. Still, there was some relief. The main loan waiver excluded those owning more than five acres. This penalised some of the poorest farmers. In unirrigated regions, even poor farmers tend to own more acres as productivity is so low. The government did respond to demands that dryland cultivators not be penalised for having more than five

acres. After all, polls were now months away. The write-off that followed of Rs.20,000 for such farmers did help a significant group of growers in Vidarbha. And there was also some money that trickled down from even the awfully flawed packages. Then came a healthy rise in cotton prices. The shifting of huge swathes of land in the U.S. to bio-fuel production pushed up prices last year. And a nearly 50 per cent rise in the MSP for cotton took the price to Rs.3,000 per quintal. In Vidarbha, it meant that about seven months of 2008 were the best period the region had seen in years. No basic problem had been resolved, but it brought some relief and reduced the stifling pressure. A pity it took so many deaths - and election year - for that to happen. The rise in MSP to Rs.3,000 was also an admission of how disastrous the Deshmukh government's torpedoing the price to Rs.1700 a quintal had been. And the removal of that Chief Minister also won the region's approval. To what extent this helps the Congress in these Lok Sabha polls is hard to gauge. There is the BSP factor that is very real and could mess up all bets. (It played a big role in 2004, too. In four seats, the BSP polled far more votes than the margin of defeat of Congress-NCP candidates.) But the Congress faces less hostility than it did three years ago. Whether it can play that to its advantage is another question. And the long-term future of White Gold here is an even bigger one.

DEVELOPMENT INDICATORS HDI Oscars: Slumdogs versus millionaires What does it mean to rank much better on GDP per capita than in the HDI, as we do? It means we have been less successful in converting income into human development, writes P Sainath.

19 March 2009 - It has been the night of the long knives for our burgeoning

billionaire population. Its band has just been devastated, falling by more than half from 53 to 24. The latest Croesus Count, also known as the Forbes Billionaires list, makes that much clear. We also fell by two notches to the sixth rank in the list of nations with the most billionaires. Our earlier No. 4 slot being slyly usurped by the Chinese who clock in with 29. More mortifying, we are a rung below the Brits who've grabbed Perch number 5, with 25. The net asset worth of India's brightest and best has also shrunk by over a third from the time of the last Forbes scroll. By 2007, that worth had reached $335 billion. That is, 53 individuals in a population of one billion held wealth equal to almost a third of their nation's GDP at the time. This year, that worth plunged to $107 billion. (A moment's respectful silence in memory of the dear, departed billions seems in order.) But there is some comfort in that our team is still worth more than twice what its Chinese rivals are. And we even now have eight billionaires more than all the Nordic nations put together - though they boast the highest living standards in the world. "Four Indians were among the world's top ten richest in 2008, worth a combined $160 billion," points out Forbes. Today, alas, "that same foursome is worth just $54 billion." But the 29 Indian tycoons reduced to the penury of mere millionairehood should not lose heart. Forbes offers us these words of reassurance. "The winds of wealth can change quickly ? They may yet again blow favourably in the direction of these tycoons." So what if the big balances fly at half mast briefly? There could be gales ahead. Alongside this grim tragedy runs a slightly longer-term saga. India has fallen to 132 in the new rankings of the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) for 179 nations. Each year since 1990, the U.N. Development Programme has brought us this index, as a part of its Human Development Report. The HDI "looks beyond GDP to a broader definition of well-being." It seeks to capture "three dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy at birth). Being educated (measured by adult literacy and

enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education). And third: GDP per capita measured in U.S. dollars at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)." Worst in a decade In the Index of 2007-08, India ranked a dismal 128. Now we're at 132. That is our worst ever grade on the Index this decade. It means, among other things, that little Bhutan, never once in the Forbes hall of fame, has trumped us in the new HDI rankings. The tiny Himalayan nation clocks in at 131. That is, a notch above its "second-fastest-growing-economy-in the-world" neighbour. Bhutan once languished amongst the bottom 15 nations in the U.N.'s HDI. It has never been among the world's fastest growing economies. At rank 132, India also lags behind war-ravaged Congo, Botswana, and Bolivia. (The last is often called Latin America's poorest nation). The Occupied Territories of Palestine (torn by conflict for 60 years) are also ahead of us. Another neighbour - Sri Lanka - has been devastated by war for over two decades and has slipped a few notches. It still logs in at 104 - 28 rungs above India. Vietnam suffered casualties in millions in the war waged against it by the United States. Decades after, its agriculture is yet to recover from the planned destruction, lethal bombing, and the conscious use of deadly poisons. But Vietnam clocks in at 114. And China at 94 despite falling several places. The bad news about the bad news is that these figures reflect the good news days. They relate to the year 2006. (The Sensex was booming. It breached the 10,000 and even 14,000-mark for the first time ever. The Indian economy also grew at 9.6 per cent in 2006-07 and 9.4 per cent in 2005-06.) Those were the glory days our 132nd rank is rooted in. The same period when we churned out 53 dollar billionaires. So the updated HDI numbers do not begin to capture the economic downturn. The picture will be even less pretty when those factors kick in.

They do capture, though, the revised purchasing power parity (PPP) estimates that clocked in by late 2007. These columns foretold this problem at the time. It was clear that if the Index was using the older PPP data, then "even our awful HDI performance could get worse" once those were revised. (India's GDP per capita (PPP) fell from $3452 to $2489 with the new data.) And yet, we'd be even lower down than rank 132 but for our showing on the GDP-per capita front. Even now, our rank on that front is six notches higher than our HDI rank. It makes us look better than we are. For instance, in making out the current rankings, U.N. researchers point out that the GDP per capita data for 2006 "caused India to rise one place." But "new data (for 2006) on life expectancy caused India to fall one place." India then also fell two more places as two more nations - Montenegro and Serbia - joined the list. Both fared better than we did. We fell a further two places "as a result of revised PPP estimates." That's how we ended up four slots below our last rank. What does it mean to rank much better on GDP per capita than in the HDI, as we do? It means you have been less successful in converting income into human development. Our GDP per capita rank is six rungs above our HDI rank. Vietnam's HDI rank of 114 is 15 rungs above its GDP per capita rank. Unlike us, Vietnam has - despite awful historic handicaps - converted its wealth into human development far better. Cuba logs in at 48, thus breaking into the top 50 nations in the HDI. (While India firms up its place in the bottom 50.) That's seven places above wealthy Saudi Arabia, whose per capita GDP is three times higher than Cuba's. In that ranking, Saudi Arabia is No. 35, towering above Cuba's 88. But when it comes to human development, Saudi Arabia lags seven rungs below Cuba. Apart from suffering lower income, Cuba has lived under crippling sanctions for decades. Sanctions that have imposed huge constraints and high prices on all essentials. Yet, life expectancy at birth in Cuba is now 77.9 years. That's almost the same as the U.S. (78). And about 14 years better than India's 64.1.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has logged its worst rank ever, falling to 15 from 12. Between 1995 and 2000, the U.S. was always in the top 5, even staying at rank 2 for a couple of years. Like with India, its decline in HDI has come in the very years seen as its best, the Golden Age of the Free Market. The Nirvana point of neoliberalism. A year into the economic reforms, India in 1992 ranked 121 among 160 nations then covered by the Index. Today, India is at 132 among 179 nations. Straight comparisons across that time are hard as the Index has changed in numbers and methodology. But the trend is clearly not joyous. Steady decline The HDI figures since 2002 signal a steady decline in the nation's conversion of wealth into human development - even as the numbers of its billionaires and millionaires doubled and trebled. Now the billionaires have shrunk in number, but not the slumdogs. There are at least 836 million Indians living on less than Rs.20 a day, as the government's own report told us in 2007. Over 200 million of those get by on less than Rs.12 daily. And those are pre-downturn numbers, too. Maybe, we need a new Forbes 500 list - naming the world's 500 poorest citizens. Who could beat us on that one?

ECONOMIC MELTDOWN Whose crisis is it, anyway? Through January the US has seen the loss of 17,000 jobs every day since the meltdown began in September. Here in India, too, things are slipping but the lessons remain unlearnt, writes P Sainath.

15 February 2009 - Many find it amusing that it took officials 11 months to declare a "recession" in the United States. Yet, it took more than 20 years to recognise worse. When does a crisis become "A Crisis?" First came ?the boom' exploding debt, crazy credit, insane speculation, a finance sector gone berserk even as manufacturing declined. Then the doom - as multiple bubbles burst.

Massive job losses, a credit crunch, a huge breakdown. These are some features of the ?Crisis' that has struck the U.S. since September. But some of those problems, certainly ruin of industry and job losses, have plagued other, poorer nations for close to two decades now. Some even saw doom without a boom. When imposed on those societies we didn't call these problems a crisis. We called them "reforms." Or the painful fallout of necessary "adjustment." When they come home to roost in Wall Street, we call it a crisis. Simply put, a crisis becomes a crisis when it hits the suits. Even within those nations on which it was imposed, the poor and hungry were devastated years before the well-off found crisis on their menu. Indeed, the predicament faced by poor people translated into the "success stories" of those elites. Remember The Crisis that struck India in 1991? The then Finance Minister, a Dr. M. Singh, told us that our balance of payments problem and shrinking forex reserves were truly a crisis. These, he said, called for reforms on a war footing. Oddly, 400 million human beings going to bed hungry every night was never thought of as a crisis. Certainly not one to be dealt with on a war footing. Within India, rural despair and breakdown meant little. Crisis is when the Sensex tanks. It took over a decade of intense misery before a Prime Minister figured out there were problems in the countryside. Which he then tried tackling with makeshift "relief packages" thinly spread out across hundreds of millions of people. (Even the much-needed NREGA only happened due to arm-twisting allies.) But much larger "stimulus" packages, aimed mostly at the narrow corporate world, happen in a jiffy. And Finance Ministers are quick to descend on Dalal Street within hours of a hiccup on the Sensex. They do so, as the media tenderly put it, "to soothe the market's nerves." Recall the short eight-day session of Parliament in 2004? It followed the historic elections of that year. The then Finance Minister was absent on the first day of that session. He was consoling the distraught millionaires of Dalal Street. The delicate sentiment of the Market had been wounded by the democratic sentiments of the Indian voter.

Even today, debate on the ?crisis' in the U.S. centres around how to help the banks and other financial bodies back on their feet. And that with few preconditions or questions asked. Forays into the most painful part of it - the staggering job losses - are infrequent. These are often mentioned in news items, and now form the rationale for the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. But it is still very hard to push through the modest measures to help those crushed by the crisis - despite popular support for it. In any case, the jobs crisis never gets the priority that Wall Street's does. Since the meltdown began in September, the U.S. economy has seen the loss, on average, of around 17,000 jobs a day. Move the baseline to November 1 and job losses have averaged more than 19,000 a day. And the trend is getting worse. Close to 2.6 million jobs have been lost since just September. Over 1.7 million of those have vanished over the last three months. January saw the loss, on average, of more than 800 jobs every hour. 'Understated' Paul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan White House, notes that even these numbers "are likely understated." Writing in Counterpunch.org, Mr. Roberts sums up the message of those who use unmassaged job loss data: If we revert to the methodology used in the U.S. in 1980 - before the government started fiddling definitions of joblessness - the U.S. unemployment rate would be not 7.2 per cent but 17.5 per cent. In India, too, job losses are now finding some mention. When covered in the media, it's mostly about jobs in the IT sector. Or those lost in related fields in the organised sector. While these are not small, only a handful of reports look at the awful hit taken, for instance, by migrant labourers. Millions of these are people who left their villages seeking work when there was no other option. They found it in construction, in laying roads and other poorly paid work. And, keeping afloat in oppressive conditions, many still managed to send something back to their

families. Now, as one of them told us: "There is nothing to send back to the village and nothing to go back to the village for." And what about all those small farmers who moved towards growing cash crops for export markets that have collapsed? And do we get to ask questions of the policy experts who brought it all to this point? Somewhere in there persists a fond and smug belief that our innate cleverness has saved India from all those bad things out there. "What slowdown?" crowed one daily, pointing to the sums spent at IPL's "auctions." If our barons could spend millions of dollars acquiring a clutch of foreign cricketers, it reasoned, things couldn't be so bad. Never mind that some of the franchisees may have laid off lots of workers, and slashed the salaries of many others. Spending three million dollars on just a couple of players is worth seeing in that context, but it won't be. Some sections of the media celebrating the IPL's success as proof of the economy's vibrancy are themselves laying off many journalists and other workers. But our elite believe that CEOs lead or should lead a charmed life. Remember their outrage when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - otherwise a darling of the corporate media - made a few bleats of protest about CEO salaries getting, er, a wee bit too large? That other media icon, Dr. Narayana Murthy of Infosys was not spared either when he called for some restraint in CEO feeding frenzy. "Pay peanuts, get monkeys" spat one contemptuous editorial. (Never mind that such publications have paid gold and got gorillas.) Now there is coverage, without much comment, of the bumbling efforts at curbing CEO pay in the U.S. Corporate kleptocracy Meanwhile, U.S. banks and CEOs continue to educate us on the culture of corporate kleptocracy. Take Citigroup, which hogged $45 billion of public money at the bailout trough. Soon after, it sought to spend $50 million on a corporate jet - a move that had to be squelched at the level of the Treasury Secretary. The

now disgraced CEO of Merrill Lynch, John Thain, spent $1.22 million on redecorating his office in early 2008. That is, even as he prepared to cut thousands of jobs. The amount included purchase of an antique "commode on legs." Heavy symbolism there, given the company was by then halfway down the tube with massive losses. Less than a week after the U.S. government committed $85 billion in bailout money to AIG, the insurance company's executives whizzed off to a luxury resort where rooms could cost over $1000 a night. Blowout followed bailout. Wells Fargo ($25 billion in bailout money) laid on a trip to Las Vegas for its star execs. Top bosses of New York financial firms paid themselves bonuses worth $18 billion in 2008. The kleptocrats clearly believe that the crisis - one that has their personal stamp on it - is for others. They themselves flourish by divine right. And the bailouts seem to confirm that. The very gangs that spurred the meltdown are rewarded with huge amounts of taxpayer money so that they can go back to doing the same things they were doing before. Meanwhile tens of millions of human beings across the world stand to lose their jobs. Many will descend into distress and chaos. The already hungry will have it much worse. Whose crisis is it, anyway? U.S. economy its business as unusual P. Sainath

Things are not as bad as they seem for the U.S. economy. They are worse.
On average, the United States has seen the loss of nearly 14,000 jobs each day since September 1. In 90 days from that date, close to 1.3 million Americans lost their jobs. After weeks of headline-grabbing events on Wall Street, these developments tend to recede into the background. Current estimates suggest that over half a million Americans lost their jobs in November alone. Something not seen in a single month since December 1974.

Things are not as bad as they seem for the U.S. economy. They are worse. As the data flow in, even estimates for earlier months have been revised sharply upwards. The September job loss figure was recorded as 159,000 two months ago. The Bureau of Labour Statistics now says the figure is 403,000. The first figure for October was 240,000 jobs lost. Now it is 320,000. The unemployment rate for teenagers, at 20.4 per cent, is three times the claimed national rate of 6.7 per cent. (This does not include those who have given up looking for work in despair. Nor does it count those working far fewer hours than they need or would like to.) A measure that includes such factors would raise the unemployment rate to 12.5 per cent. Yet, even with this flawed measure, the rate is at its highest in 15 years. There were 10.3 million jobless people in November and that was 3.1 million more workers unemployed than just a year ago. Worse, massive layoffs continue. Even the IT sector has lost thousands of jobs. There are other icebergs ahead. This is winter, when at least two major sectors agriculture and construction do not hire much. Come spring, and there will be different benchmarks to test jobless figures against. There could also be a new round of layoffs (in Retail, for instance) starting January after the last two major holidays Christmas and New Year get over. Things might improve if the new administration has massive programmes running by spring that help millions return to work. Circumstances might force this administration to make choices that could in America be denounced as Leftist. Not impossible but on current evidence, tough. Huge job stimulus programmes, even if brought in, would take time to work through. If Barack Obamas plan to create 3 million jobs over the next two years works, it would still barely recover those that vanished over the previous two. The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates to between 0 and 0.25 per cent. (Leading one wit to declare that the Fed is now the only institution truly attempting Islamic Banking.) It believes the positive results of this will be seen in time. However, this will not solve the credit crunch the problem of banks fearful or unwilling to lend to those who currently need it. The mortgage and

other crises show no major signs of a let-up. Even if all the measures of the Bush and the incoming Obama administration work, it wont be a return to business as usual. For tens of millions of people, life might never be the same again. The housing mortgage crisis still burns. Six million people could lose their homes over the next two years. And the credit card crisis, already setting in, could strike sharply in a few months. That hit would encompass far more people than housing would, even if the amounts involved (and impact on the financial markets) are smaller. As Business Week puts it: Making matters worse, the subprime threat is also greater in credit-card land. Risky borrowers with low credit scores account for roughly 30% of outstanding credit-card debt, compared with 11% of mortgage debt. This is a country where almost everybody uses credit cards (often several of them). If job losses continue to mount at their present pace, the card catastrophe will accelerate. Those out of work will not be able to meet their payments. They could also find it hard to purchase essentials and would likely fall deeper into debt. This was a sector already headed for crisis for quite some time. In some estimates, U.S. credit card debt grew from $211 billion in 2002 to $915 billion by the end of 2007. When this house of cards falls, it will spur further the home mortgage mess and the recession already under way. There are those making their housing payments off their credit cards at huge interest. Meanwhile, the emphasis right through has been on bailing out the financial giants. (An Institute for Policy Studies report notes that the U.S. and European governments are set to spend 40 times more to rescue financial firms than to fight climate and poverty crises in the developing world.) And yet, daily, new scandals emerge from Wall Street. Both from the banks and other types of operations. The billions paid out as bonuses to executives have not been reversed even when the profits for which these bonuses were rewards have proved illusory. Merrill Lynch, as the New York Times points out, handed

out $5 billion to $6 billion in bonuses in 2006. But Merrills record earnings in 2006 $7.5 billion turned out to be a mirage. It is only now that the obscene compensation for CEOs and top executives is a matter of limited debate. As for the hundreds of billions of dollars given to the banks in the bailout, there is no evidence of this money being used to ease the credit and mortgage crises at the level of the public. Not even a requirement that they make details of their use of the money public though it is public money they make use of. Meanwhile, the latest Wall Street scandal snowballing is that of the Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. Madoff, a shining beacon of Wall Street enterprise and philanthropy, ran what has been described as the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. His own estimate of the fraud is in the region of $50 billion (more than three times Indias farm loan waiver). Huge charities, trusts and individuals, including billionaires, have lost massively in this rip-off. And theres more to come. Yet again the question how such gigantic rackets thrived in Wall Street without the massive financial media ever noticing leaps up. The Madoff scam is only one among many things unravelling. However, there is far more passion generated over the obnoxious Governor of Illinois who tried to sell the Senate seat that Mr. Obama vacated for personal benefit. Governor Blagojevichs action is neither new to Chicago, nor huge. It is a petty deal by a petty person, reeking of low corruption in high places. The energy it generates, though, is like focussing on the local pick-pocket when grand larceny proceeds next door. Maybe there is a need to hold businessmen to the same standards as elected representatives. Especially those dealing with untold sums of public money? In this bleak landscape came a surprise at a factory in Chicago. You got bailed out. We got sold out. So read the banner at the sit-in strike of the workers of the Republic Windows and Doors factory. Having been robbed of their jobs in a

stealthy shutdown, over 200 unionised workers and their families occupied the factory and demanded severance and vacation pay. They got it, too. The action drew national attention. In a sign of changed times, politicians, celebrities, and public figures turned up at the factory to declare support. Even Mr. Obama said he agreed with their demands. The media which, pre-meltdown, would have savaged the strike, were less hostile. Prior to the economic crisis, says analyst and columnist Carl Bloice who writes in the Black Commentator, the police might have gone into the factory and evicted the workers as trespassers. Postmeltdown, it was a different story. Bloice says the U.S. has not seen such a labour action in decades. Impressively, ordinary citizens went up with food hampers to help out the strikers. Could we be witnessing the start of more militant labour action in the U.S. after decades? And could we be seeing greater sympathy in the country for such actions after decades, as job losses mount? Why the United States got it wrong P. Sainath

It is worth learning this: Al-Qaeda was the biggest beneficiary of the response of the United States to 9/11 alongside U.S. corporations. Americas War on Terror produced far more terrorism in the world than there had been prior to that response.
Of all the arguments making the rounds after the appalling slaughter of 180 people in Mumbai, the worst is this: that India should learn from the United States about how to respond to such terror. Look at the USA, goes the refrain, after 9/11 has there been another attack on U.S. soil? In short, Washingtons measures after that tragedy were so effective, nobody ever bothered them again. This knocks at the doors of insanity. The U.S. ;response does stand out as worth learning from. There is very little it did not get wrong.

Around 3,000 people lost their lives in the dreadful attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 9 /11. Americas response was to go to war. It launched two wars, one of against a country that had not a single link to the events of 9/11. Close to a million human beings have lost their lives in that response. That includes 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and nearly 1,000 in Afghanistan. That is apart from several hundred thousand Iraqis losing their lives. Countless Afghans die each month, as one of the worlds poorest states sinks deeper into devastation. (Afghanistan, for U.S. liberals, is the good war.) Millions have suffered dislocation and deprivation in the region. $ 3 trillion-war Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz estimates that the Iraq war is costing the United States $ 3 trillion in all. (About three times Indias GDP.) Good news for American corporations that make a killing every time there is large-scale killing, but not of much use to ordinary Americans. With the U.S. economy in awful crisis, those costs are haemorrhaging. The war in Iraq was launched with intelligence findings on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) being stockpiled in that country. And on the ground that Baghdad was linked to 9/11. This was the excuse for the response. Both claims proved false. At the time, the US media played a huge role -- its response -- in planting fabricated WMD stories. That helped launch perhaps the most destructive conflict of our time. American costs also include tens of thousands wounded, injured and ill soldiers. With over 100,000 US soldiers "returning from the war suffering serious mental health disorders, a significant fraction of which will be chronic afflictions." (Stiglitz: "The Three Trillion Dollar War."). Besides, the war meant huge spending cuts at home. At the time of writing, California, the largest of American states, is mulling massive cuts. Its budget deficit is around $ 11 billion, says journalist and analyst Conn Hallinan. Just about a months worth of war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By late 2006, a little over three years after that response began, over 650,000 Iraqis were estimated to have lost their lives. A survey by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland and the Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad put it bluntly: As many as 654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions. The deaths from all causes violent and non-violent are over and above the estimated 143,000 deaths per year that occurred from all causes prior to the March 2003 invasion. Iraqs overall mortality rate more than doubled from 5.5 deaths per 1,000 persons before the war began to 13.3 per 1,000 persons by late 2006. Many more civilians have died since then, an extension of the USAs response to 9/11. Pre-war Iraq was the Arab country most ruthless towards Islamic fundamentalists. Today, the latter wield enormous power in a country they had no base in. Fundamentalism harvested new recruiting fields fertilised by U.S. violence. Its worth learning this: Al Qaeda was the biggest beneficiary of the response of the United States to 9/11 alongside U.S. corporations. Americas War on Terror produced far more terrorism in the world than there had been prior to that response. There are other lessons in the U.S. debacle. Almost every week now, the U.S. bombs some part of Pakistan its firm ally of decades. Civilians are routinely killed by this, and if Mr. Obamas campaign promises are to be kept, this will go up. So will the appeal of fundamentalism amongst the affected. This is Islamabads reward for decades of faithful support to American military adventures in Afghanistan. A lot of Pakistans distress arises from the very kind of strategic ties with the United States that Indias elite would so love to have themselves. Also, the resultant undermining of Pakistan, is bad news for India. More fundamentalisms, more militancy, and worse, both sides of the border. Embedded journalism

The media too, have much to learn from the response of their U.S. counterparts. The embedded journalism that disgraced some of Americas leading media institutions. Regardless of a bleating anti-war editorial, The New York Times will never live down its WMD stories. The very media that now mock George Bush propped him up at the time. Now they report how unpopular the war is, how silly he was. But the war for ratings had already done damage hard to undo. Its both pathetic and funny: the very forces in the United States that saw only external and foreign reasons for all that had happened now advise India exactly the opposite. Not to rush to any such conclusions. In coming days, says the New York Times for example, India will have to look inward to see where and how its government failed to protect its citizens. The damage of whipped up hysteria as part of the response occurred within the United States, too. Sikhs in America became the targets of vicious hate crimes across the country after 9/11. Why? The demonising for years of anyone with turbans and beards made them targets of retaliation. One Sikh body says it has logged over 300 hate crimes against Sikhs after 9/11. These include torching of a home, vandalising of Gurdwaras, vicious assaults and one death by shooting. This is the model to emulate? Curbing of civil liberties Globally, the barbaric prison camp at Guantanamo, from where several prisoners have been released as innocent after years of brutal torture, has been a widely criticised part of the American response. Inside the United States, the curbing of civil liberties a vital 9/11 response was at its worst since the McCarthy period. The Patriot Act was just one symbol of these. And Mr. Bush now ranks among the most despised U.S. Presidents of all time. (Though he did succeed, in another constituency, in bringing more popularity to Osama bin Laden than Al-Qaedas leader could have dreamed of.)

There is a need for a strong and vigorous response to the appalling outrage in Mumbai. Parts of what that should be are obvious: bringing the guilty to book, revamping the intelligence networks, overhauling a range of security agencies, being more prepared. It is no less vital, though, that the immediate response also be to deny the authors of the outrage the success of their goal. To ensure that further polarisation within Mumbai society along religious, sectarian lines does not occur. To make sure that innocent people are not killed or terrorised in the response. To dump the notion that shredding civil liberties and democratic rights helps anybody in any way. Shred chauvinism and jingoism, not the Constitution of India. To strongly counter those attempting to foment communal strife, regardless of which religion they belong to. To see there is no repeat of 1992-93 when close to a quarter of a million people fled the city in terror. That would a great reply. But to learn from Mumbais events that we should emulate Americas response at the very time Americans are figuring out how poorly they were served by it would be to repeat history both as tragedy and as farce. The unlikely martyrdom of market jihad P. Sainath

Market Jihad is mortal, martyred but not dead. It has merely gone underground. Or is catching its breath.

Wall Street is run for the benefit of Wall Street In truth, there is no substitute for regulation It is time to end the failed experiment with radical deregulation. From The American Conservative, October 2008.
When words like these appear in a bastion of United States conservative thought, you know something is on. More so when The American Conservative graces that

article with this blurb about rescuing the U.S. economy: Goldman Sachs alums arent the men for the job. The piece by Eamonn Fingleton goes on to say why: Both Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his key adviser Neel Kashkari, formerly held top jobs at Goldman Sachs, and it seems clear that their highly controversial and, to economic historians, bafflingly unorthodox bailout plan serves Wall Streets interests particularly those of their former employer far more than the American publics. Well, theres a start. A recognition that Wall Street and corporate interest (and even leaving it to the market) can be very different from public interest. Interventionist mode The first part of October, said the New York Times, represents the most sweeping government moves into the nations financial markets since The Great depression and perhaps ever, according to economists and finance experts. That month saw government after government sworn to free markets and deregulation announce they were acquiring ownership stakes in banks. Declare they would prop up dying private institutions with billions in public funds. And guarantee bank debt. Whether in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain or the United States, massive state intervention is the order of the day. Across the world, governments are in one way or the other in profoundly interventionist mode. How profound? Well, estimates by the United Nations and like bodies suggest that with $60-80 billion a year additional spending, major issues in education, water, sanitation, or health could be well addressed worldwide. Governments have long pleaded that this money simply didnt exist. Yet, a handful of them discovered they could find over a trillion dollars to bail out mostly private corporations. And found that money public money oh so fast.

In its amazing fervour for privatisation, Indias post-1991 elite never once admits why quite a few industries had been nationalised in the first place. Their private owners had run them into the ground with huge amounts of public money. As one top official put it at the time: the sicker the industries get, the healthier the owners get. Thats when governments stepped in to save thousands of jobs. Once nationalised, these looted, sick units were quickly dubbed as symbols of public sector inefficiency. Now its happening across the world. In the United States, too, the public will pay the bills of the decades-long frenzy at the corporate feeding trough. But here, the bailout cannot be called nationalisation, though often, that is what it is about or could well be about. That would be Communistic. In some cases, companies are being bailed with amounts of public funds greater than their current market value. (The $25 billion bailout the auto makers seek is worth even more than that of Citigroup till late the 800-pound gorilla of American finance.) The right wing slogan of not with my tax dollars now chokes its authors. Investors and shareholders were, on the one hand, sacred (or supposed to be) in corporate theology. In the larger economy, on the other, you had to cut any public spending you could. Now, when youre spending billions of public tax dollars on these behemoths shouldnt that make the public their owners? Their main shareholder? Till now, there is not even a semblance of accountability to the public on the billions so far doled out to the oligarchs. Market fundamentalism is in bad shape. Shrine attendance has fallen. Its televangelists are subdued, their psalm book is lost and the singers have laryngitis. Market jihadis scour other subjects to crusade about. Remember the editorials urging the UPA after the Lefts walkout to push ahead with financial liberalisation since the cancer was gone? Well, no recanting but a more subdued mood for sure. The government itself takes credit for insulating the economy against the global meltdown. In short: credit for non-liberalisation.

That the insulation arose from the restraint imposed on it by the Left and public opinion is hotly denied. In the U.S., words are now being bandied that were unheard on air in decades. Socialism for the rich. Deficiencies of the Free Market. This shift is more important than it seems. For three decades, markets were raised from a tool one amongst many to being a tyranny. There was nothing The Market could not solve. Thomas Frank summed up the mindset very sharply in his book One Market Under God. Markets enjoyed some mystic organic connection to the people, while governments were fundamentally illegitimate markets expressed the popular will more articulately and meaningfully than did mere elections markets are where we are most fully human; markets are where we show that we have a soul. The market was not merely inseparable from democracy. It was democracy. In India, as late as this June during the food price crisis, there were ideologues who saw hunger as essentially a function of anti-market systems. (One editorial argued that if the markets were allowed to do their job, food would rush to the places where demand was highest.) What about health, education or agriculture? Just leave it all to The Market. Of course, the American Conservative does not take an anti-market position. Nor does it plead for intervention as a rule, even in vital sectors. It singles out finance as unique. Finance simply cannot be left to its own notoriously conflicted devices, it declares. It then calls for the regulation of that sector, quoting from Market Fundamentalist scripture to show that such exemptions were implicit in the words or silence of True Prophets such as Milton Friedman. And this is one of the more thoughtful journals of its spectrum. Market Jihad is mortal, martyred but not dead. It has merely gone underground. Or is catching its breath. The meltdown has devastated its storm troopers. The IMF soldiers on bravely, though, presenting an ideological volte face as business

as usual. As Professor Jayati Ghosh points out, its prescriptions for rich countries in crisis contradict its fatwas for developing ones. When in financial crisis, the latter have to cut spending, reduce their deficits (and turn them into surpluses no matter how painful it is to their poor.) But rich says the IMF like the U.S. which brought on this crisis can provide financial stimulus to their economies, and support economic activity. Even if they run up large deficits. In short, they are exempt from the rules. But then we know which of these worlds the IMF represents. As Prof. Ghosh points out: The tiny countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, with a total population of less than 28 million, have more votes in the IMF than China, Brazil or India. Lack of introspection But while on the meltdown, consider one sector that has not had the scrutiny it deserves. The media particularly financial journalism. Still each night and day we suffer the same experts who know exactly what went wrong. Precisely how to save your money (a bit hard if that money is already gone). Sure, there have been some fine stories on the stable after the horses have bolted. Not a word of introspection. How could this expensive edifice of financial journalism fail its audiences across the world at every critical stage? Remember Enron? Or a dozen other episodes where their expertise ought to have kicked in and saved millions from being cheated of billions? Far more alarms have been rung by government officials and regulators than by a completely corporate-captive media. But they are never called to account. Not even those who dismissed talk of a housing bubble only months ago. Or who just a month before the meltdown assured the world that no 1980s-type crisis was to be expected! Market jihad may have lost its best shock troops. But its propaganda pundits are still around. Watch this space.

EMPLOYMENT GUARANTEE NREGA: A fine balance

The employment guarantee in rural areas is having multiple and layered effects. With better wages, the bargaining power of the weakest has gone up a notch. P Sainath reports.

13 July 2008 - "Why can't they keep the schools open during summer," asks P. Somamma in Mosangi. A strange question, with the mercury blazing past 43 Celsius in the Nalgonda village and all of us cowering in the little shade we can find. "Why would you want to send the kids to school in this heat, Somamma?" "At least there," she says, "they got one decent meal a day. I can't afford to give them one now, during the vacation." In Kondapur in Mahbubnagar district, Bharatamma echoes that demand. "When the schools are closed, there is no mid-day meal. That means, instead of getting to eat, the children go to work. How else does the family manage?" Hit by rising food prices, poor families can't afford one more meal. For those with two children in school, the costs really go up. When the schools are open, you can find some young ones saving a part of their meal for a hungry grandparent at home. Back in Mosangi, Somamma's son Bikshapati says he preferred the mid-day meal at school to food at home. "It was better," he says. "We got dal, rice, tomatoes, rasam, even eggs." Much of that is beyond his family's reach now. If he and his family are able to pull on at all, it's because of the work the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act brings to their village. In Mosangi, there is bitterness over how it has worked. In Kondapur, where it has done better, there are some complaints. Yet, in the eyes of all them, this is the most important programme the countryside has seen in years.

There are complaints of rip-offs. "We've been paid only Rs.30 a day," says an angry P. Mallamma in Mosangi. The record says they got Rs.84 a day. K. Kalamma says she has "worked for over a month, without being paid." Even a former deputy sarpanch, Saiddulu, has not been paid for a week's work. He is well over 60 - yet another older person returning to work, driven by food costs. But he is clear that the work the NREGA brings is "very vital to us. It should run well, that's all." Three issues Three major issues confront a programme that is the lifeline of these communities at this time. Two of these are built into it. "Why only 100 days of work," ask people. And they do not get those 100 days fully. The second is the rule of only one member per family being able to use it. In Andhra Pradesh, very sensibly, field assistants at NREG sites are breaking that rule. It is possible to see husband and wife together at the same site. That's as far as it goes, though. Poor families see themselves as a collective. "One family member cannot go to Guntur to work and another to the site," says Lashkar in Lambapur village. Splitting up is bad economics. A day's wage at a brick kiln might be less than what it is for NREG work. But though brick kilns are brutal and exploitative, all members of a family can work there - and for more than a hundred days. These two restrictions hobble a programme people say they badly need. Third are the usual local problems. Payment delays for one. Though Andhra Pradesh seems to be ahead of several other States, this remains a problem. "People here have waited four months to get much less than what was owed to them," says Mallamma. "People are recorded as working when they did not work. Others are not recorded as working when they did," says B. Ramaiah in Vadlaparthi village of Nalgonda. Lambapur in the same district throws up this kind of paradox. This is a village where NREG work has dramatically curbed migrations. There is no one who will

tell you things have not improved. Yet, most "passbooks" show zero days of work. This is an adivasi 'tanda' with very low literacy and education. The records are a mess and a formal audit would conclude there has been a disaster. But Lambapur has done well out of the NREGA. To make it more complex, the reverse could be true in Mosangi. The records would show Mosangi has done better, which it has not. Everywhere is the backlash from the old contractor-local official-low bureaucracy that feels threatened by the NREGA. Capturing the records and the process is part of the fightback. In at least two other States, activists promoting the NREGA have been killed. A.P. fares better Yet Andhra Pradesh has fared better, thanks to the growing awareness of people of their rights. Even at the start, 2.7 million people applied for job cards in the first month after the programme was announced. From top officials in the State's NREGA team to unions of landless labourers, many have worked hard to promote the programme In this process, a small but vital reordering of power relations is under way. The NREGA is having multiple and layered effects. With better wages, the bargaining power of the weakest has gone up a notch. For some, their access to costly services like health has risen slightly. NREG work has been a lifejacket in the flood waters of the price rise. And no other programme has had the positive impact on distress migrations that it has achieved. Lakshmamma hopes the NREG work will continue. But she's up against a powerful combine of forces entrenched in the countryside and ensconced in Delhi's power elite. (Picture by P Sainath) "It is not just low level officials," laughs a very senior official in Delhi. "There is hostility right

here at top levels of bureaucracy and politicians. There are efforts on to make it less attractive to people needing work. Complaints that the NREGA is raising wages and hurting farmers are being used to push for limiting that wage. And making even those 100 days of work harder to access. This would be disastrous. But it seems certain such efforts will soon follow." "Of course, there is much scope for improvement," he says. "You could get people to participate more in choosing the kind of works needed locally. We could provide better technical support and advice. Restrictions on the number of days and family members could be sorted out by making it more universal." And by aligning it to works that benefit the whole community, including local farmers, some of those other problems could also be met. In Tatikolu village, Lakshmamma hopes the programme will continue. She is up against a powerful combine of forces entrenched in the countryside and ensconced in Delhi's power elite. A widow with young children, she finds it hard to get work at the site to begin with. Seated in her bleak home, she wonders when her food supply will run out. And hopes the NREG work won't. "Without it, I don't know what we would do." Soybean trumps King Cotton in Vidharbhas regime change P. Sainath

The shift from cotton to soybean has major implications for agriculture, livelihoods and the future of the Vidharbha region.

The shift began a few seasons ago but has picked up Cotton gets more risky each season Soybean input costs are far lower

Yes, says Babanrao Khatale in Ashti. In our village, 80 per cent of farmers have shifted from cotton to Soybean. In Lonsawla in the same Wardha district, Prabhakar Argude, also a farmer, confirms a major shift away from cotton. As for jowar, it has almost disappeared. Its now soybean all the way. In Washim district, the changeover has already occurred. District Agriculture Officer N.V. Deshmukh says, soybean cultivation shot up by 80,000 hectares between 2003 and last year when it touched 1.93 lakh hectares. And it might go up more. In the same period, cotton fell to 59,000 hectares and could decline further. Even in Panderkauda, heart of cotton territory in Yavatmal where the fibre is still King, there could be a regime change this year. The agriculture office says that soybean might just slide past cotton. Historic Vidharbha is witnessing a historic shift as King Cotton loses ground to soybean. A shift that has major implications for agriculture, livelihoods and the future of the region. It began a few seasons ago but has now picked up rapidly, says Vijay Jawandia, a farmers leader and the regions foremost thinker on agriculture. He says that the price for soybean today is more than double what farmers got just a year or two ago. That is, Rs. 2,600 a quintal against Rs. 1,200. Simply put: soybean is selling at more than twice the minimum support price. The prices have gone up, says Jawandia, because of problems hitting big producers like Argentina amd Brazil. And reduced acreage for it in the United States. That cannot remain the case for long, he points out. With cotton prices fluctuating over seasons and often declining sharply, lakhs of farmers have been lured by soybean. By end-2004 farmers were getting less than Rs. 1,800 a quintal of cotton on average. That has risen considerably this past year. Mainly because of large

acreage shifts to biofuels in the United States. Since Vidharbhas prices had earlier tanked due to EU-U.S. subsidies to their cotton producers, they rose again with this shift. But its hard to see how long it can remain that way, says Jawandia. Dismal cotton prices from the late 90s to last year were a major factor in the wave of suicides by indebted farmers. Soybean input costs are far lower. In Washim, Agriculture Department official P.D. Lokhande calculates that input costs of soybean are at least Rs. 2,500 less for an acre than those of cotton. Thats a conservative estimate. Many farmers in Vidharbha run up input costs of over Rs. 13,000 an acre on cotton. Particularly those using Bt and other expensive technologies and chemicals. An acre of soybean can cost half that much to cultivate. Cotton seed costs were even higher two years ago than they are now after government intervention, says an agriculture department official. Then, Bt cost Rs. 1,650 a bag of 450 grams. And people often stick to the practice of using two bags an acre even when not needed. Soybean, you can buy the 30 kilograms you need for an acre for Rs. 1,000. Labour costs are cheaper, too, says Prabhakar Argude in Lonsawli. In cotton you pay for sowing, spraying, five pickings and so on. With soybean its for a couple of sprays and then the harvesting. Whats more, soybean matures in four months less time than cotton or sugarcane. That allows you to go for a second crop like channa or wheat by October. So all around your returns are higher than with cotton, though your costs with cotton are higher. Soybean also has less problems with pests, at least for now. Cotton gets more risky each season, says one agriculture officer. It attracts a range of pests that Bt does not even claim to touch. And even the bollworm is gaining in resistance to Bt. Now with the mealy bug showing up, cotton is in trouble. It means more pesticides, more costs, more losses.

Nationally, groups linked to the soybean industry expect the crop to cover up to 10 million hectares in the season that began this month. Up 13 per cent from the previous year. Production by this September could be close to 10 million tonnes across the country. And Maharashtra is the State making the largest shift towards soybean. If the picture in Vidharbha is something to go by, those estimates could well be on track. (Unless the fertilizer shortage derails plans.) Area under soybean in the 11 districts of the region went up by nearly two lakh hectares in 2007 to 17 lakh hectares in one estimate. Even as cotton saw a dip of nearly three lakh hectares, falling to about 14 lakh hectares. It was only in the western districts that cotton retained its fragile hold. This year, soybean seems set to overtake it even there. Across the region, farmers say theres another reason. Payments with cotton are a nightmare. You never know when you will receive them. Not everyone is enamoured of the shift to soybean, though. Its not the oil, but the high global price of soybeans de-oiled cake (DoC) that is driving the frenzy, says Jawandia. DoC prices are above Rs. 2,000 a quintal at the global level. (One quintal yields upto 82 kilograms of DoC and 18 kilograms of edible oil.) But what happens when the crop of Argentina and Brazil return to the market? Soybean has its own risks, too. No rains at the time of flowering or rains at harvest time can cause a wipe-out. Cotton, on the other hand, says Jawandia, has a better long-term staying power. It is the worlds most important non-food agricultural commodity and the soil here is ideal for it. Those families using their own labour should stay with cotton. The main draw of soybean is lower labour costs. In non-irrigated land, cotton is the best employment guarantee scheme for the number of days of work it gives. In Nagpur, a government statistical expert on agriculture is also wary.

This shift is being driven by poor cotton prices over the past few years. Better cotton prices will see many return to it. Also, soybean is a heavy-feeder crop, drawing much more out of the soil. So successive seasons can see the soil turn soybean sick. In which case, yields will fall. By mid-August, we should know better the extent of change this season." Whichever way it goes, the shift is on from cotton to soybean. The regions farmers could be trading one volatility for another. Fertilising profit, sowing misery P. Sainath

The fertilizer shortage might even be overcome just now. But the crisis wont go away. It and many more to come are built into both, whats going on in world capitalism and what we have been doing in India.
When youre down to distributing fertilizer from a police station, you have a problem. Its what they did in Hingoli in Maharashtra. That was a week ago, but the police are still, in a sense, involved in its distribution there and elsewhere. In Hingoli itself, there are lots of policeman controlling the queues outside dealers outlets. The dealers wont open up otherwise. Thanks to the police, Hingolis farmers got some fertilizer. Sort of giv es a whole new meaning to the acronym PDS. Police Distribution System. In Nanded, cops lathicharged angry farmers demanding fertilizer needed urgently with the rains setting in. In Akola, there is heavy police bandobast for the same reasons. More than one Agriculture Officer has fled his workplace to escape mobs. There were angry outbursts at the market place in the chief ministers own constituency at Latur. Protests in neighbouring Karnataka have grabbed national attention with a farmer being shot dead. In Andhra Pradesh, farmers stormed zilla parishad meetings in Medak and Rangareddy and set up road blocks in other districts.

In Vidharbhas cotton belt, for all the celebration of Bts success, there have been huge shifts towards soybean. Thats because soybean costs much less to grow than cotton. At least for now. Soybean needs less fertilizer than cotton. But needs it at the time of sowing, just as the rains set in. In Madhya Pradeshs, soya bowl, the shortages are hurting. And for years now, more farmers have been joining the soybean bandwagon in other states, too At the very least, it argues that government was unprepared for the agricultural season. The shortages had been predicted for a long time. Not just fertilizer, but seeds as well. In Maharashtra, the state argues that the Gujjar agitation has crippled freight train traffic, hence the shortages. This may well be a real factor, but it is not going to account for the 60 per cent shortfall in supply. Even if we tide over the present crisis, fertilizer troubles will worsen. Many complex factors are asserting themselves. Some of the very things that happened with grain and food prices are at work with fertilizer as well. The corporate conquest of agriculture is well apace. As the Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2008) notes: At a time when parts of the world are facing food riots, Big Agriculture is dealing with a different sort of challenge: huge profits. The WSJ points to the grain-processing giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., which saw a 42 per cent leap in its fiscal third quarter profits. Including a sevenfold increase in net income in its unit that stores, transports and trades grains such as wheat and corn, as well as soybeans. Seed and Herbicide giant Monsanto and fertilizer maker Mosaic Co. all reported similar windfalls in their latest quarters. As the WSJ grudgingly says: Some observers think financial speculation has helped push up prices as wealthy investors in the past year have flooded the agriculture commodity markets in search of better returns. So much so that The Commodity Futures Trading Commission last week held a hearing in Washington to examine the role index funds and other speculators are playing in driving up grain prices. The WSJ cites research showing that total index fund investment in corn,

soybean, wheat, cattle and hogs has risen by 37 billion dollars (which is well over double Indias farm loan waiver for millions of farmers) since 2006. Now, its the turn of the New York Times (June 5, 2008) to note that a few big private investors are starting to make bolder and longer-term bets that the worlds need for food will greatly increase by buying farmland, fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment. One company has bought about five dozen fertilizer distribution outlets and a fleet of barges and ships. And others, including the giant BlackRock fund group in New York, are separately planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in agriculture, chiefly farmland, from sub-Saharan Africa to the English countryside. Of course, the NYT and WSJ also parrot corporate chant that this could be a good thing for hungry humanity. These new bets by big investors could bolster food production at a time when the world needs more of it, says the NYT report. And the WSJ notes that food companies say bigger profits can be used to develop new technologies that will ultimately help farmers improve productivity. Monsanto says its designing improved genetically modified seeds that can squeeze even more yield from each acre of planted grain. Gee! Theyre the good guys, actually. In the WSJs eyes (June 10, 2008) the villains are elsewhere. The problems arise with China and India gobbling food as never before and food prices soaring Complex as the reality is, the principles are fairly simple. At a time when debates in India highlight the un-viability of agriculture, giant corporations are betting the opposite. For them, at least, it holds the promise of an undying source of super profit. The NYT reports headline sums it up nicely: Food is gold, so billions invested in farming. Ultimately, you can live without a lot of things, yes, even television. Or aircraft and SUVs. But you cannot live without food and water. The latter commodity is the focus of the biggest thrust of some huge multinational companies. And we are well into the process of privatising water in

India (for them). A process that promises chaos, misery and conflict on a scale we cannot begin to grasp at this point. Across the globe, the entire chain of resources and inputs is now getting cornered by corporations. Farm land, water, fertilizer, seed, pesticide and many more. Grab these together and youve got the world by its belly. The giant companies are now putting out papers on how they will solve the worlds food problem. Never mind they are at the heart of it. Meanwhile, making chemical fertilizer requires large use of fossil fuels. So rising oil prices further spur the fertilizer crisis. The rip-off by the top corporations in that sector has been so great that even the United States Senate saw moves to impose a windfall profits tax on oil companies. (In India, the government responded to such calls by transferring the burden to the people and asking for patience on the inflationary trend.) Of course, it was scotched in the Senate, too. Subsidy paradox Fertilizer subsidies in India have for long gone to manufacturers, not farmers. (If they went to farmers directly, they would have more choice in what fertilizer to use.) Meanwhile, the world over, speculative capital has been moving towards agricultural commodities and fertilizer. Other sectors in the stock markets have tanked or not done so well. In India, too, calls for a ban on futures trading in agricultural commodities arose from such a situation. Wheat went underground for a while. Prices rose (and keep rising). Now it is the turn of fertilizer. A bag of Diammonium Phosphate today costs Rs. 490 officially. In black, it sells for around Rs. 600. (The global price, far more under corporate control, is at least four times as much. That makes imports more difficult.) Even our nominal price is nearly three times what it was 15 years ago. For well over a decade now, we have invested less and less in agriculture. Following the World Bank-IMF menu, we discouraged food crop and focused on

cash crop and sang the hymns of export-led growth. Mindless de-regulation saw corporate control grip more sectors of agriculture. Seed, fertilizer, markets, you name it. We reduced our agricultural universities to labs for private corporations. We stepped up our use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Millions of farmers were shifted to a much higher-cost economy where input costs are crippling. A (non-organic) farmer in 1991 could cultivate an acre of cotton in Vidharbha for Rs. 2,500. Today that would cost him or her Rs. 13,000 or more. That is, with all the miracles of chemicals, pesticides and Bt. As these costs shot up, we disabled our capacities to meet the needs of the cultivator. And then we withdrew credit. Even if the fertilizer comes through this season, countless farmers in the post-loan waiver world find themselves without fresh credit. Were not mad, say bank managers in crisis regions. The farmer has no new income. Nor better prices. How will someone who could not repay Rs. 10,000 repay thrice that sum? So who do farmers seeking credit turn to? The very input dealers who are emerging the major source of informal credit in the countryside. And who are implicated in the black marketing of vital inputs in every crisis. The fertilizer shortage might even be overcome just now. But the crisis wont go away. It and many more to come are built into both, whats going on in world capitalism and what we have been doing in India. Weve dismantled vital parts of our agriculture and with it, the livelihoods of millions. This at a time when the World Bank and IMF are trying to hide their tracks in the trail of disaster they left the world over. A study by the Banks economists now says that economic growth of the agriculture sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty as any other sector. ( The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2008). And we fail to see why food costs could get a lot worse. The corporations do, though. As that NYT headline puts it: Food is gold, so billions invested in farming. Or, more truly, in the capture of it.

Of loan waivers and tax waivers An overwhelming majority of Vidharbha's farmers do not gain from the farm loan waiver because they are too 'big.' But the IPL waiver goes to some of India's richest millionaires and billionaires. They aren't too big, writes P Sainath.

20 May 2008 - In Maharashtra, where the nation's most distressed farmers have been denied the benefit of the 'farm loan waiver,' the government is said to waive crores in entertainment tax that the Indian Premier League cricket matches would normally attract. Media reports in Mumbai on this score reckon that means a loss of up to Rs.10 crore in revenue. As even the pro-corporate newspapers of the city point out, the direct beneficiaries would be Mumbai's millionaires and billionaires. Film stars and corporate bosses who did not find it difficult to spend crores on buying teams and players. That too, for what the media are fond of calling "the world's richest cricket tournament." Simply put, if it goes through, they'll be getting tax waivers on the hiring of cheerleaders, among other things. True, this is not the first time that entertainment tax has been waived on cricket matches in Mumbai or elsewhere. The BCCI and its affiliates have always enjoyed political patronage. The difference, which has got even members of the ruling front worked up, is that those raking in the crores in exemptions are for-profitonly groups and individuals. By law, any event, musical or cultural, performance or other, staged for profit must pay entertainment tax. But not the IPL, which will have held 10 matches in Mumbai including the Final. It's an odd situation. The overwhelming majority of Vidharbha's farmers do not gain from the farm loan waiver - because they are too "big." That is, they hold more than two hectares of land. But the IPL waiver goes to some of India's richest millionaires and billionaires. They aren't too big. And the only reason Vidharbha's farmers have holdings that exceed the loan waiver's two-hectare

cut-off is because they are dry-land farmers. Their fields are poor, un-irrigated and less productive. The IPL waiver reports come within three weeks of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on "Farmer's Packages" in the State. A performance audit the government of Maharashtra chose to present to the Assembly on April 27, the last day of the session. A day on which, as MLAs say, "there isn't enough time to count the pages, let alone read the many documents they push at that time." Clearly, they were not eager on a discussion of the contents. The very first page of the CAG report tells us why. Despite the State government's Rs.1075-crore "package" for farmers "the suicides, however, continued unabated and the number increased to 1414 during 2006-07." The Prime Minister's visit in mid-2006 and the Centre's Rs.3750-crore package that followed in July also came the year the suicides increased. As we know from earlier reports, including some in this newspaper, they actually went up in the second half of that year. Erratic spending Here is the CAG on the official response: "No evaluation of the implementation of the packages, in terms of reduction in agrarian distress, was made." We also learn that tens of crores of rupees aimed at reducing farmer distress were, in fact, never spent. The value of the packages themselves was exaggerated by over Rs.200 crore. Crores were released under some heads with no reference at all to the actual requirement of funds. Other funds, such as those meant "for increase in production," were released late. Cheques given to some 'beneficiaries' "were dishonoured for want of cash in the bank." The "self-help groups were paid subsidies in excess of admissible norms." Parts of other funds were not released at all. In head after head, funds were underutilised. This is how lackadaisical the governments were with packages worth a total of Rs.4,825 crore. So what's Rs.10 crore for the IPL?

But the CAG report, which is devastating from start to finish, does not stop at that. It has a clear premonition of things to come. On the "interest waiver" that followed the Prime Minister's visit, it says: "While reimbursing banks for interest waived on loans, sanction of fresh loans was not ensured." That is exactly where most farmers now find themselves again after the "massive farm loan waiver." Fresh credit is very hard to come by. Distress has not come down. There have been over 360 farm suicides since January this year, about 200 of them post-loan waiver. In the official count, there were 153 in January and February. And of these, only 18 were considered "eligible suicides." That is, only 18 families had any hope of being compensated for losing a breadwinner. The figures for March and April will turn out to be much worse. There was a hope, after Rahul Gandhi's plea in Parliament, that the two-hectare cut-off point would not be imposed on dry-land farmers in places such as Vidharbha and Anantapur. But it was. The very places whose misery had sparked the idea of a loan waiver now stand mostly excluded from it. There is a very important point the CAG report brings out that tends to get glossed over most of the time. That the farmer's world is not driven by agriculture alone. Farmers, whose incomes have been plummeting, have been hammered by education and health costs. The commercialisation of those sectors has hurt them, as it has countless millions of other Indians, very badly. That is on top of the stick they've taken in agriculture. "Distress amongst farmers on account of cost of education was not measured." The "allocation of funds (Rs.3 crore at Rs.50 lakh per district) for health was meagre ..." It mentions the government's own survey showing that the health issues were huge and required much larger action. One of the most important things the CAG points to is the State government evading its own findings. In mid-2006, the government organised what was the biggest door-to-door survey of farm households ever done. It covered over 17

lakh households, that is, all farming households in the six "crisis districts" of Washim, Akola, Yavatmal, Buldhana, Wardha and Amravati. Over a fourth of those families - that is, more than two million people - were found to be in "maximum distress." And more than three quarters of the rest were in what the report called medium distress. In other words, close to seven million people were in distress in just six districts. That was the finding of the most massive study, powered by over 10,000 field workers. And a report of the State government itself, at that. Yet, says the CAG, "the selection of beneficiaries ? had no relation to the departmental survey conducted for the assessment of distress. As a result, the prioritisation of relief and rehabilitation works considering the distress level of farmers could not be ensured." Why did the State government ignore its own study? Because the results of that huge survey are, to this day, explosive. Also, de-linking the distress survey from the packages meant you could reward your friends who might never have been in crisis. Catalogue of failure One line recurs in different ways through the CAG report: "Authenticity of reported expenditure was doubtful in the absence of proper classification of accounts." Throughout, the report is a catalogue of failure too serious to be written off as "error." On inputs, which farmers were desperate to get at reasonable prices, there was poor assistance. Farmers were hit hard by a poor supply of seed when they needed it most. Seed requirements for several crops, suggests the CAG, were simply not taken seriously. "The estimates were not realistic as these were made based on the amount allocated to this component and not based on actual requirement." The CAG report captures at the top end, the state of things on the ground. Being a performance audit, it confines itself to that task. It is not a field report. However, the portrait it presents of the government's performance is a sharply

accurate one. A picture that sits perfectly with the chaos at the receiving end below. In the end, this is more than just a report. It is a snapshot, or a series of snapshots, of how governments, particularly the one in Maharashtra, are responding to agrarian distress. The complete apathy, the corruption, the coverups, even the contempt for the farmer, that come across. This is a State where all the attention is on the brilliantly-lit, power-guzzling matches of the IPL. It is also a State where many regions face power cuts ranging from 3-16 hours each day. And countless children have completed their examinations without being able to study much. The huge power cuts meant darkness in their homes when they returned from school. The report is about the packages in this State. But if we extend our thinking a bit, it should lead us to reflect on things much larger. On the crisis in the countryside, on those being marginalised or just driven away. On regions beyond this one and on our attitude towards those who grow our food but can less and less afford to eat it themselves.

GLOBALISATION Between a rock and a hard place The nations that taught us that state meddling in economic matters was blasphemy are now nationalising banks, bailing out brigands, and pouring in funds to stop factories from closing down. But a few true believers are still holding out, against all the evidence, writes P Sainath.

19 April 2008 - The bailout of Bear Stearns by the U S Federal Reserve was worth $30 billion. That is roughly twice the 'loan waiver' given to millions of Indian farmers. The latter move has been scorched by the ideologues of the free market and neo-liberalism as 'fiscal insanity' or 'irreversible damage.' The media - even those mildly critical - have been far more muted in their criticism of

the 'rescue' of Bear Stearns. That is, one of the biggest global investment banks and securities trading and brokerage firms anywhere on the planet. Think of it: a tiny Wall Street cabal which gave itself bonuses worth billions of dollars just weeks before the crash gets a bailout of Rs.1,19,520 crores. That's almost double the Rs.60,000 crores given to tens of millions of farmers in dire straits in this country. A country where one farmer kills himself every 30 minutes in despair. The problems of farmers do not even begin to end with that waiver. On the other hand, a bunch of thugs in tuxedos who did pretty much whatever they wanted, laying a minefield across the world, have got the waiver of a lifetime (or many lifetimes). The lifejacket for the bank does not require the return of their bonuses. So much so that Jim Rogers, CEO of Rogers Holdings and a staunch free marketer, calls it "Socialism for the rich." In his words "the Federal Reserve is using taxpayer money to buy a bunch of Bear Stearns traders' Maseratis." He points out that hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent to bail out Wall Street as a whole. The theologians of the global market are between a rock and a hard place. Hypocrisy has rammed into reality. Three of the basic principles the believers of corporate-led globalisation swear by have been so eloquently summed by Professor James Galbraith Jr. of the University of Texas at Austin. One: all successes are global. Two: all failures are national. Three: the market is beyond reproach. For over a decade, we were assured that everything good that ever happened was because we had embraced corporate-led globalisation. All the negative effects visible were the result of our own national inertia and corruption. And of course, the market would heal all wounds. The notion of state meddling in economic matters was blasphemy. Now the nations feeding us this rot - which we recite by rote - are nationalising banks, bailing out brigands and pouring in funds to stop factories from closing down.

Now having to blame 'global factors' for the price rise at home must seem a bit galling. Failures at home? Er, well, you see, let's not go there now. This is election year. So we see Minister after Minister, the latest being Kapil Sibal, tell us that the price rise and food shortages in India are the "result of global factors." Nothing to do with us. No less amusing to see the World Bank and the IMF warn of starvation and riots. It's hard to think of anyone who has contributed more to those phenomena than they have. And now Finance Minister P. Chidambaram calls for an urgent "global consensus on the price spiral." Without this, social unrest would conflagrate into a "global contagion." To be fair to the Union Agriculture Minister, he alone has not laid the blame at the door of faceless global forces. Sharad Pawar locates the problem closer home. In his view, south Indians are eating too many chapathis, leading to shortages of wheat. (DNApage 1, April 2, 2008). An entertaining view but there's a problem with it. Even while dietary changes do affect consumption patterns, these occur over decades. There is little evidence of an outburst of wheat-centric gluttony in the southern states these past six months. (Unless, of course, with great cunning, the southies are hoarding it up for future chapathi orgies.) Someone is hoarding it up, though, and it is not the general public, south or north. The presence of very large traders including MNCs buying directly from farmers has been on awhile. A process aided by our strangling of the old Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees' Act. We've set the soil for contract farming and corporate agriculture. Meanwhile, the lip service paid to higher Minimum Support Prices (MSP) has proved worse than a sham. In practice, producers are being pushed towards private trade. Fewer procurement centres, delays in purchasing and, still worse, delays in payments are the norm. Then, when procurement is poor, we announce that the farmers are doing so well in the market, they don't want to sell to the state. The present mess was arrived at with much celebration of the farmer's right to sell as and when he liked, to whom he wished. In effect, millions of farmers, deep

in trouble, have been selling their produce at distress rates for several seasons now. The bargaining power of individual farmers on their own is zilch. Total procurement has been down. When market prices for the farmers' produce have been higher than the MSP, this might be expected. But it has happened even when the MSP has been raised. There have also been cases of traders picking up produce from indebted farmers and then claiming the higher MSP on it themselves. On the whole, though, smaller traders are in trouble. The big boys are here. And so even with enough grain within the country just now, the less well-off cannot access it at affordable rates. The Centre's pressing the States to act against hoarding is itself an admission of the problem. But there is yet to be a single instance of action against really big hoarders and speculators. These include giant companies operating through a variety of pointmen. The raids now focussed on small traders will yield little. Meanwhile, the entry and growing entrenchment of giants in retail ensures things will get worse. (Remember this was supposed to provide us with cheap prices? Then look at the gap between wholesale and retail prices.) We have also nurtured the commodities futures market despite its clear links to speculation and price rise. It's odd how every other small trader will brief you at length on this - but you won't see much of that story in the media. In fact, with markets tanking around the world, more speculators have seized on foodgrain as a good bet. Which it is. Through the reforms period, we have pushed millions of small farmers to shift from foodcrop to cash crops. The acreage under foodcrop has reduced across these years. And we also exported millions of tonnes of grain - as in 2002 and 2003. What's more, we exported at prices cheaper than those we charged poor people in this country for the same grain. The idea was that we had a "huge surplus" of grain and could well afford to export. The truth was that the massive pileup of unsold stock arose from a surplus of hunger rather than of grain. The

purchasing power of the poor had collapsed. But the fake "surplus" story came in handy. It allowed the export of grain - heavily subsidised by us - to be consumed by European cattle. The present mess is no surprise. For years, economists such as Utsa Patnaik have warned strongly that we would arrive at where we are now. As she repeatedly pointed out, the effects of all our actions could be seen in the plummeting net per capita availability of foodgrain. From 510 grams per Indian in 1991 to 422 grams by 2005. With the top fifth of Indians doing better than ever before, this meant that those below were eating far less than they did just a few years ago. The plunging food intake of the poorer sections has come along with the steady scrapping of the public distribution system. On the one hand, the PDS has been sharply whittled down. On the other, millions who need BPL cards are denied them. In Mumbai, just 0.28 per cent of ration cardholders have BPL cards. Now, even those who do have cards find no supplies to buy. And of course, we've spared no efforts to link our agriculture to the volatility of global prices in a world where a handful of corporations control those prices. Their clout within India has grown rapidly. Their control extends further each day from the field and farm gate to the price and sale of the final product. Meanwhile, each budget takes further the process of "growth" driven by the consumption of the rich. Tax breaks at the top, cuts in state spending, all these too have a major role in making life unbearable below. Yet, even as the edifice crumbles, a few true believers hold out for the Second Coming. "Price rise reflects scarcity," says one editorial, "and at no time is free trade more effective as a welfare enhancer than when it combats scarcity by quickly getting supplies where the demand is." But governments are "denying free trade this role." Well, get set for the global contagion. OPINION Discrimination for dummies: V 2008 Increasingly, job quotas are cited as 'discrimination' - in reverse. But the word

discrimination in terms of caste means something very different that the media mostly do not, or choose not to, understand, writes P Sainath.

19 January 2008 - A signal achievement of the Indian elite in recent years has been to take caste, give it a fresh coat of paint, and repackage it as a struggle for equality. The agitations in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and other such institutions were fine examples of this. Casteism is no longer in defensive denial the way it once was. ("Oh, caste? That was 50 years ago, now it barely exists.") Today, it asserts that caste is killing the nation - but its victims are the upper castes. And the villains are the lower orders who crowd them out of the seats and jobs long held by those with merit in their genes. This allows for a happy situation. You can practise casteism of a visceral kind and feel noble about it. You are, after all, standing up for equal rights, calling for a caste-free society. Truth and justice are on your side. More importantly, so are the media. Remember how the AIIMS agitation was covered? The idea of 'reverse discrimination' (read: the upper castes are suffering) is catching on. In a curious report on India, The Wall Street Journal, for instance, buys into this big time. It profiles one such upper caste victim of 'reverse discrimination' with sympathy. ("Reversal of Fortunes Isolates India's Brahmins," Dec. 29, 2007.) "In today's India," it says, "high caste privileges are dwindling." The father of the story's protagonist is "more liberal" than his grandfather. After all, "he doesn't expect lower-caste neighbours to take off their sandals in his presence." Gee, that's nice. They can keep their Guccis on. A lot of this hinges, of course, on what we like to perceive as privilege and what we choose to see as discrimination. Like many others, the WSJ report reduces both to just one thing: quotas in education and jobs. No other form of it exists in this view. But it does in the real world. Dalit students are routinely humiliated and harassed at school. Many drop out because of this. They are seated separately in

the classroom and at mid-day meals in countless schools across the country. This does not happen to those of "dwindling privileges." Students from the upper castes do not get slapped by the teacher for drinking water from the common pitcher. Nor is there much chance of acid being thrown on their faces in the village if they do well in studies. Nor are they segregated in hostels and in the dining rooms of the colleges they go to. Discrimination dogs Dalit students at every turn, every level. As it does Dalits at workplace. Yet, as Subodh Varma observes (The Times of India, December 12, 2006), their achievements in the face of such odds are impressive. Between 1961 and 2001, when literacy in the population as a whole doubled, it quadrupled among Dalits. Sure, that must be seen in the context of their starting from a very low base. But it happened in the face of everyday adversity for millions. Yet, the impact of this feat in terms of their prosperity is very limited. The WSJ story says "close to half of Brahmin households earn less than $100 (or Rs.4000) a month." Fair enough. (The table the story runs itself shows that with Dalits that is over 90 per cent of households.) But the journalist seems unaware, for example, of the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. Which says that 836 million Indians live on less than Rs.20, or 50 cents, a day. That is, about $15 a month. As many as 88 per cent of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (and many from the Other Backward Classes and Muslims) fall into that group. Of course, there are poor Brahmins and other upper caste people who suffer real poverty. But twisting that to argue 'reverse discrimination,' as this WSJ story does, won't wash. More so when the story admits that, on average, "[Brahmins] are better educated and better paid than the rest of Indian people." Oddly enough, just two days before this piece, the WSJ ran a very good summary of the Khairlanji atrocity a year after it occurred. That story, from a different reporter, rightly suggests that the economic betterment and success of the

Bhotmange family had stoked the jealousy of dominant caste neighbours in that Vidarbha village. But it ascribes that success to India's "prolonged economic boom which has improved the lot of millions of the nation's poorest, including Dalits." Which raises the question: were other, dominant caste groups not gaining from the "boom?" How come? Were Dalits the only "gainers?" As Varma points out, 36 per cent of rural and 38 per cent of urban Dalits are below the poverty line. That's against 23 per cent of rural and 27 per cent of urban India as a whole. (Official poverty stats are a fraud, but that's another story.) More than a quarter of Dalits, mostly landless, get work for less than six months a year. If half their households earned even $50 a month, that would be a revolution. Let us face it, though. Most of the Indian media share the WSJ's 'reverse discrimination' views. Take the recent Brahmin super-convention in Pune. Within this explicitly caste-based meeting were further surname-based conclaves that seated people by clan or sub-group. You don't get more caste-focussed than that. None of this, though, was seen as odd by the media. Almost at the same time, there was another high-profile meeting on within the Marathas. That is, the dominant community of Maharashtra. The meeting flatly demanded caste-based quotas for themselves. Again, not seen as unusual. But Dalit meetings are always measured in caste, even racist, terms. This, although Dalits are not a caste but include people from hundreds of social groups that have suffered untouchability. The annual gathering in memory of Dr. B R Ambedkar on December 6 in Mumbai has been written of with fear. The damage and risks the city has to stoically bear when the noisy mass gathers. The disruption of traffic. The threat to law and order. How a possible exodus looms of the gentle elite of Shivaji Park. (In fear of the hordes about to disturb their polite terrain.) And of course, the sanitation problem (never left unstated for it serves to reinforce the worst of caste prejudice and allows 'us' to view 'them' as unclean).

But back to the real world. How many upper caste men have had their eyes gouged out for marrying outside their caste? Ask young Chandrakant in Sategaon village of Nanded in Maharashtra why he thinks it happened to him last week. How many higher caste bastis have been torched and razed in land or other disputes? How many upper caste folk lose a limb or even their lives for daring to enter a temple? How many Brahmins or Thakurs get beaten up, even burnt alive, for drawing water from the village well? How many from those whose "privileges are dwindling" have to walk four kilometres to fetch water? How many upper caste groups are forced to live on the outskirts of the village, locked into an eternal form of indigenous apartheid? Now that's discrimination. But it is a kind that the WSJ reporter does not see, can never fathom. In 2006, National Crime Records Bureau data tell us, atrocities against Dalits increased across a range of offences. Cases under the Protection of Civil Rights Act shot up by almost 40 per cent. Dalits were also hit by more murders, rapes and kidnapping than in 2005. Arson, robbery and dacoity directed against them those went up too. It's good that the molestation or rape of foreign tourists (particularly in Rajasthan) is causing concern and sparking action. Not so good that Dalit and tribal women suffer the same and much worse on a colossal scale without getting a fraction of the importance the tourists do. The same Rajasthan saw an infamous rape case tossed out because in the judge's view, an upper caste man was most unlikely to have raped a lower caste woman. In the Kumher massacre which claimed 17 Dalit lives in that State, charges could not be framed for seven years. In a case involving a foreign tourist, a court handed down a guilty verdict in 14 days. For Dalits, 14 years would be lucky. Take contemporary Maharashtra, home to India's richest. The attention given to the Mumbai molestation case - where 14 arrested men remained in jail for five days

after being granted bail - stands out in sharp contrast to what has happened in Latur or Nanded. In the Latur rape case, the victim was a poor Muslim, in Nanded the young man who was ghoulishly blinded, a Dalit. The Latur case was close to being covered up but for the determination of the victim's community. The discrimination that pervades Dalit lives follows them after death too. They are denied the use of village graveyards. Dalits burying their dead in any place the upper castes object to could find the bodies of their loved ones torn out of the ground. Every year, more and more instances of all these and other atrocities enter official records. This never happens to the upper castes of "dwindling privileges." The theorists of 'reverse discrimination' are really upholders of perverse practice.