Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘economy

The slowing motion of India’s quick mobility

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RG_vehicles_households_20_years

This is a chart whose lines drift downwards as time goes by, quite the opposite of all the usual depictions of India’s rising GDP, rising income, rising purchasing power, and so on. But in the two dropping lines is the proof that India’s households are tying themselves up in stifling vehicular knots.

This chart shows what we call two-wheelers (scooters and motor-cycles) and cars (four-wheeled passenger vehicles, formally). It also shows number of households and a span of 20 years. The two lines show the number of households to a car (the orange line) and the number of households to a two-wheeler (the blue line). As there are many more two-wheelers than there are cars, they are on different scales, so the left axis is for the two-wheelers and the right for cars.

vehicles_2012I have taken the data from two sources. One is the Census of India, for the census years 2011, 2001 and 1991. The other is the Road Transport Yearbook (2011-12) issued by the Transport Research Wing, Ministry Of Road Transport and Highways, Government Of India. The yearbook includes a table with the total number of registered vehicles (in different categories of vehicle – two-wheelers, cars, buses, goods vehicles, others) for every year. The number of households is from the census years, with simple decadal growth applied annually between census years. I have not yet found the detailed data that will let me refine this finding between urban and rural populations.

This is what the chart says: in 1992, there were 10 households to a two-wheeler and 48.7 households to a car. Ten years later in 2002 there were 4.8 households to a two-wheeler and 26.2 households to a car. Another ten years later in 2012 there were 2.2 households to a two-wheeler and 11.8 households to a car.

vehicles_2005The implications are several and almost all of them are an alarm signal. Especially for urban areas – where most of the buying of vehicles for households has taken place – the physical space available for the movement of people and goods has increased only marginally, but the number of motorised contrivances (cars, motor-cycles, scooters and more recently stupidly large SUVs and stupidly large and expensive luxury cars) has increased quickly. Naturally this ‘growth’ of wheeled metal has choked our city wards.

But there are other implications. One is the very idea of individual mobility in and through a town or city. The connection – foolishly maintained by one government after another, and foolishly defended by macro-economists and industrial planners – between the automobile industry and gross domestic product (GDP) has crippled common sense.

vehicles_1995More motorised conveyance per household also means more fuel demanded per household, and more fuel (and money) wasted because households are taught (by the auto industry with the encouragement of the foolish cohorts I mentioned earlier) that they are entitled to wasteful personal mobility. Over 20 years, the number of cars per household has increased 4.1 times but the number of buses per household has increased only 2.8 times. That is embarrassing proof of our un-ecological and climate unfriendly new habits.

In 2012, there were 1.67 million buses (of all kinds and configurations), there were 7.65 million goods vehicles (to move all those appliances demanded by households, food crops, fertiliser, retail food, etc), 13.16 million other vehicles (which as the ministry says “include tractors trailers, three-wheelers (passenger vehicles)/LMV and other miscellaneous vehicles which are not classified separately”), 21.56 million cars (including jeeps and taxis), and 115.41 million two-wheelers. There are far too many of some kinds and not enough of others. More than 20 years after ‘liberalisation’ began, India’s household mobility is crawling along in first gear for having made too many wrong choices.

Bharat and its billionaires

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RG_new_India_inequality_panelSeveral times a year, one money-minded organisation or another publishes a ‘rich list’. On this list are the names of the extraordinarily wealthy, the billionaires. Such a list is compiled by Forbes magazine. In this year’s list of billionaires, there are 90 Indians.

Perhaps it is the largest contingent of Indians on this list ever, perhaps their wealth is greater, singly and together, than ever before, perhaps the space below them (the almost-billionaires) is more crowded than ever. What must be of concern to us is the inequality that such a list represents. In the first two, perhaps three, Five Year Plans, cautions were expressed that the income (or wealth) multiple between the farmer and the labourer on the one hand and the entrepreneur or skilled manager on the other should not exceed 1 to 10.

In practice it was quite different, but the differences of the early 1990s – which is when economic liberalisation took hold in India – are microscopic compared to those of today. What’s more, the astronomically large differences in income/wealth of 2015 are actually celebrated as being evidence of India’s economic superpowerdom.

The current per capita national income is 88,533 rupees and it will take, as my disturbing panel of comparisons shows, the combined incomes of 677,713 such earners to equal the wealth of the 90th on the Forbes list of Indian billionaires. Likewise, there are six on the list of 90 with median incomes, and a median income is Rs 11.616 crore, which is equal to the entire Central Government budget outlay for agriculture (and allied activities) for 2015-16.

Written by makanaka

March 5, 2015 at 22:03

In the land of air-conditioned cup noodle eaters

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Ever more varieties of snacks from fewer crop staples. The conversion of primary crops into processed food, and the retail chain that drops it into the consumer's basket, all this requires energy. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Ever more varieties of snacks from fewer crop staples. The conversion of primary crops into processed food, and the retail chain that drops it into the consumer’s basket, all this requires energy. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

We are being misinformed and poorly entertained. There is a great big complex apparatus that tells us, as it has done for most of the last 20 years, that climate change is about science and observation, about technology and finance. This is the international apparatus. Then there is the national bedlam, comprising government, NGOs, think-tanks, research institutes and academia, industry and business, capital markets and finance. The national bedlam on climate change contains many views, some of which are directly related to the international apparatus. Our government, usually in the form of utterances by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, attempts to connect economics to everything else it thinks is important, and present the resulting mess as our climate change policy, which only provokes more bedlam.

Such is the state of affairs in India concerning climate change. Industry and finance, whatever their motivations (profit, market, subsidies, friendly politicians, and so on), are fairly consistent in what they say they want. NGOs and think-tanks – most of which function as localised versions of the international apparatus – are responsible for an outsized share of the bedlam, for they must not only protect the interests of their principals (usually in the West) but at the same time be seen to be informed, authoritative and influential at home. Ordinarily, this renders them schizophrenic, but the hullabaloo surrounding climate change in India is so loud, no-one notices the schizophrenia of the NGOs and think-tanks. Media – that is to say, vapid but noisy television and dull but verbose print commentators – sides with one group or another depending on who’s paying for the junkets.

Property, assembly-line homes and the trope of quick ownership to attract young earners. One more energy sink. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Property, assembly-line homes and the trope of quick ownership to attract young earners. One more energy sink. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

The punctuations in this long-running and episodic climate change opera that we witness in India are the annual international gatherings, and the erratic policy pronouncements by the central government. For most people, struggling with food price inflation, with urban living environments choked by particulate matter, hounded by creditors and surrounded by useless gadgetry, climate change is a non-subject. And so the middle class stays out of the bedlam, for it is too busy negotiating the storied ‘growth’ of India or breathlessly seeking to profit from it in as many ways as there are flavours of potato chips. Who is left from the 1.275 billion Bharat-vaasis who can cast an appraising eye on the bit players and techno-buskers, and who can judge for themselves the consequences of their actions? We don’t know. And it is such not knowing that balances, with a taut silence, the bedlam of the posturing think-tanks, the technology fetishists, the grasping NGOs, the carbon merchants and their political cronies.

It has helped us not at all to be served, every other week or so, the bland intellectual regurgitations of India’s talking climate heads. It has helped us not at all to be preached at (faithfully reported, accompanied by appropriate editorial cant) by the United Nations whose agency, the UNFCCC, has fostered 20 years of expensive gatherings designed to deceive thinking folk. It has helped us not at all to have to correct, time and again, a government that does nothing about capitalism’s operatives who consistently attack and dismantle efforts to protect our people from environmentally destructive activities. It has helped us not at all to have dealt out to us, from one ruling coalition to the next, from a fattened ’empowered group of ministers’ to a PM’s Council that prefers fiat, missions and programmes that speak ‘renewable’ but which refuse stubbornly to talk consumption.

The balance between settlement and land. Absent entirely in our cities and towns, threatened in our villages. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

The balance between settlement and land. Absent entirely in our cities and towns, threatened in our villages. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Climate change and Bharat is about none of this and it is about all of this in relation to our behaviour. Ours is the land of air-conditioned youth devouring cup noodles while gesturing with greasy fingers across smartphone screens. It is not the land where their grand-parents tilled fields, tended orchards, walked on pilgrimages and lit lanterns in simple dwellings. But this is now, and here, in urban Coimbatore and Cuttack as much as in rural Darbhanga and Dharwad, the reckoning of the effect of our 1.275 on climate has to do with the buying of cars (bigger and two per family) and the widening of roads.

It has to do with the building of housing ‘complexes’ (modern amenities and 24×7 power, but naturally), the contrived convenience factor of retail food markets whose demands deepen the monoculturing of our land mosaics, once so very diverse with coarse cereals, the myth-making of jobs and employment by cramming vast buildings with directionless migrant youth, and attaching to them (costs calculated by the second) the electronic machinery that makes online retail possible, the imagery of the flick of the switch or click of a button delivering goods and services as though from the horn of plenty, the vacuous promises of imminent superpowerdom and a techno-utopia set to the beat of Bollywood lyrics. We have indeed been misinformed.

A 68th Independence Day in our Bharat

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INDEPENDENCE DAY - 2014 REHEARSAL

On 15 August 2014 it is the 24,473rd day that Bharat and India has been an independent country. During that time we have had 15 Lok Sabha and the 16th now sits in Parliament, having been placed there by 814,500,000 electors who cast their votes in 543 Parliamentary constituencies in a general election that has long been the largest and most complex in the world. We’re good at elections. We’re also good at reading newspapers – we have 10,908 daily newspapers – and 26,552 monthly magazines (far too many about films, far too few about farmers). Many of these get delivered thanks to the efforts of the dedicated staff of 154,822 post offices who deliver some 6,371,800,000 pieces of mail (including money orders and greeting cards). Schoolchildren like seeing postmen on their rounds and we have some 243,360,000 who learn from our heroic teachers in 1,314,633 schools.

Many of those schools (some under mango trees) are in our villages, of which there are 640,930 and these are run (quite well, on the whole) by 232,855 panchayats which noisily elect 2,645,880 panchayat members (a good number of them women, who care about how many children go to school). Our panchayats have lots on their weekly agenda, and between them manage 100,293,000 hectares of land that are planted with cereals that help feed Bharat (rotis and kheer, idlis and bicuits). All our villages keep a great number of animals – for ‘kisan’ households they are extended family – and our fields and festivals are attended by 199,075,000 cattle (whose horns are gaily painted) and 105,343,000 buffaloes (who enjoy a good scrubbing). When they’re at work, our cows and buffaloes are tramping around 138,348,461 farm holdings spread over 159,591,854 hectares – of which 117,605,129 are small and marginal holdings on 71,152,325 hectares, but cows and buffaloes aren’t choosy about farm size.

Our rice and wheat (and pulses) is moved carefully around Bharat by rail and by road. When it is moved by rail, this valuable foodgrain enters a system that is 65,436 kilometres long, rail tracks over which 9,956 locomotives (electric, diesel and still a few steam) smoothly pull 48,037 passenger bogies and 244,731 goods wagons past 7,172 stations (and their ‘chai’ stall), for which our farmers (and postmen) thank 1,307,000 railway employees (who are also some of our best sports persons). From Kaniyakumari to Leh, and from Bhuj to Kohima, our 1,325,000 jawans and 1,155,000 reservists rely on our trains (most are humbler than the well-appointed Shatabdis) to take them home to family. Usually outnumbering the jawans in railway bogies are managers and salesmen, accountants and technicians who work in our 738,331 companies and 211,660 factories.

They keep the wheels of industry and commerce turning  (they are usually small and nimble, 23,447,361 in cities and towns and 35,022,735 in rural districts). Their enterprise gives the jawan his sturdy trunk and the schoolgirl her satchel, stationery for the teacher and toolkits for the panchayat plumber. Somewhere between Ratlam junction and Nagpur, the engineer may proudly mention the 12,694,853 people (most of them workers) employed in our factories, at which the accountant will murmur that Rs 501,560 crore is the paid-up capital of Bharat’s many companies. Jawan or kisan, factory worker or manager, all must deposit their wages and salaries in a bank, and we have 109,811 bank branches (39,439 are rural and 41,681 are in cities and towns) in which savings are happily collected (Rs 56,380 per head) and against which credit is dispensed (as happily, we hope, at Rs 44,028 per head). Our bank branches are also the staging posts for the 11,756 billion currency notes in circulation (no more staples and the new series will come printed with braille) but with 933 million quick-fingered mobile phone subscribers (549 million in cities and towns) we may see fewer real notes and more ‘mobile’ payments.

Village and factory, trains and cattle, and 1,250,000,000 of us. This is our Bharat on our 68th day of Independence.

Written by makanaka

August 14, 2014 at 21:09

Time to halt the anti-labour pro-FDI momentum

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The new NDA government has within six weeks of its formation made its direction clear. It will seek the steady weakening of laws that have protected labour and will encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) into as many sectors of the economy as possible.

RG_socialist_fist_201406Such unilateral dismantling of workers’ rights and of self-reliance cannot be tolerated. Prime minister Narendra Modi, finance minister (and defence) Arun Jaitley, commerce minister Nirmala Seetharaman, home minister Rajnath Singh, rural development (and transport) minister Nitin Gadkari, urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu, agriculture minister Radhamohan Singh, labour minister Narendra Singh Tomar and their cabinet and ministerial colleagues are not in office as representatives of Indian companies and industry associations, nor are they in office as representatives of multi-national corporations and the finance industry.

But judging from their statements in so short a time, they need a strong reminder that it is the people – worker and kisan, householder and elderly – whom they serve. Where will that strong reminder come from?

The first such reminder has already been issued, forcefully, during a meeting between the central trade unions and labour minister Tomar on 2014 June 24. The minister of state for labour Vishnudeo Sai, the labour secretary, chief labour commissioner, Central Provident Fund Commissioner, finance commissioner, ESIC and other labour department officials also heard the demands and points of view of the central trade unions.

What has been asked for is what the central unions call “a directional change in approach and policy so that the legitimate interests of working people who produce wealth for the nation, resources for the exchequer and also profit for the employers are protected and taken care of and also the interests of the national economy and the national assets and resources are harnessed for the benefit of the majority of the populace”. This has become all the more urgent and necessary as the central govt (which is urging state governments to follow suit) is attempting to hurry major amendments to a number of principal labour statutes including the Factories Act, the Minimum Wages Act and the Child Labour Act.

RG_socialist_fist_201406_HThat it is necessary for such a change to be demanded (yet again, these have been central to successive sessions of the last few Indian Labour Conferences, the 42nd, 43rd, 44th and 45th) demonstrates how strong a hold Indian industry and their foreign collaborators have on the political class, regardless of the public persuasion of the members of that political class.

The trade unions had systematically arrayed before these government worthies the reasons for their opposition to the policy of opening up all sectors to FDI, to the reckless deregulation of strategic sectors and natural resources of the economy including the financial sector, to the aggressive disinvestment of public sector units and the privatisation of crucial public utility services. There were representatives from Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Indian National Trade Union Congress, All India Trade Union Congress, Hind Mazdoor Sabha, Centre for Indian Trade Unions, All India United Trade Union Centre, Trade Union Coordination Committee, All India Central Council of Trade Unions, United Trade Union Congress, Labour Progressive Federation and Self-Employed Women’s Association (BMS, INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, AICCTU, UTUC, LPF, SEWA).

RG_socialist_fist_201406_VThe trade union representatives presented the incontrovertible evidence – a presentation of great import but largely ignored by the urban-centric broadcast and television media – of the anti-labour and anti-people policies that have been the hallmark of UPA1 and UPA2, and which given their current orientation, will continue to be a primary characteristic of the new NDA government. These are:
* patronisation of deliberate default in tax payment by companies
* the violation of all basic labour laws on (1) minimum wages (2) social security (3) trade union rights (4) safety in workplaces (5) contractual work
* reckless opening of strategic and sensitive sectors of the national economies including public utilities for exploitation by foreign companies and speculators
The same destructive set of policies has been followed by the previous Congress-led government in the name of promoting employment, generating investment from the private sector (both domestic and foreign), all of which has combined to condemn the working class, rural and urban labour, farmers and the informal sector alike to impoverishment as India is wracked by an ever-deepening economic crisis.

The hunger that Bharat inherited from two lean decades

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What did the ‘liberalisation’ of the Indian economy bring? What has 20 years of the ‘India growth story’, which is sold around the world, brought its labour and workers? How have households rural and urban fared at balancing their budgets and meeting their needs? Poorly, for it has been a struggle that continues.

RG_nutrition_3An analysis in the journal of the National Sample Survey Office, Sarvekshana, has compiled estimates of average calorie intake for the country and the major states from six quinquennial (every five years) surveys of consumer expenditure. These surveys show a decline in average calorie intake between 1972-73 and 2009-10. The overall decline is substantially greater for rural than for urban India, and appears to have been sharper in the period since 1993-94 (as measured by the 50th round of NSSO surveys), especially in the urban sector.

The analysis on ‘Trends in Nutritional Intake in India’ has shown that the proportion of households with calorie intake below the level of 2700 kcal per consumer unit per day (this is a measure different from per capita) has grown steadily since 1993-94: from under 52% in rural India to nearly 62%, and from 57% in urban India to about 63%.

This is no surprise to the large proportion of our population who have borne the merciless brunt of food inflation for close to a generation. Between 2004 and 2013, food prices in general rose by 157%. Cereals, the staple diet of the poorest, were high on the scale, with rice at 137% and wheat at 117%. Pulses – the sole source of protein for most – had risen by 123%. Potato was even higher at 185%. As for vegetables, they have long priced themselves out of the diet of the poor, by rising up to 350%. This crippling rise continued while the government (UPA-I and UPA-II) loudly claimed every few months it would bring prices down.

RG_nutrition_1That is why the share of cereals in total calorie intake has declined since 1993-94 by nearly 7 percentage points for rural India and by about 3.5 percentage points for urban India: the share of oils and fats has on the other hand risen by 3 percentage points for both. The share of milk and milk products has grown by about 1.4 percentage points in urban India but by only 0.6 percentage points in rural India.

Moreover, at the all-India level protein intake has fallen from 60.2 grams to 55 grams per person per day in rural India and from 57.2 grams to 53.5 grams in urban India over the period 1993-94 to 2009-10. The decline has taken place in most major states but has been sharpest in rural areas of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – where intake has fallen by 9-12 grams.

As the major trade unions have been raising an alarm about at least every quarter, the price of rice for BPL (below poverty line) card holders increased from Rs 350 per quintal in 1997-98 to Rs 415 per quintal in 2007-08. In the same period the APL (above poverty line) price was increased from Rs 550 per quintal to Rs 755. For wheat, the price for BPL card holders was increased from Rs 250 per quintal to Rs 415 and for APL card holders from Rs 450 to Rs 610 in a period of 10 years.

RG_nutrition_2In such a situation, fats ought not to be a contributor to calories more than it was 30 years ago. But the analysis tells us otherwise – for India has become the favoured importer of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia. Every major state shows an increase in its population’s fat intake. At the all-India level the increase has been from 31.4 grams per person per day in 1993-94 for the rural population to 38.3 grams in 2009-10 – a rise of 7 grams per day over the 16-year period, and from 42 grams to 47.9 grams per day for the urban population, a rise of 6 grams per day over the same period. Between 1993-94 and 2009-10, the contribution of cereals to protein intake has fallen by about 4.5 percentage points in rural India and by 3 percentage points in urban India, while the contribution of pulses has fallen slightly in both rural and urban India.

This analysis from the NSSO must be viewed against the growing trend in India of the corporatisation of agriculture and the industrialisation of the food system. New market monopolies whose reach is far greater than could be conceived in 1993-94 are now at work, aided by speculative financial predators. There is in response a need for strengthening social ownership of the cultivation of food staples, of the organic agriculture movement, of shortening the distances that food travels, of localisation of the Bharatiya food web.

‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality

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"Those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the 'exploited' but the outcast, the 'leftovers'." - Pope Francis. Image: L'Osservatore Romano

“Those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.” – Pope Francis. Image: L’Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis has issued, a month before Christmas, a blunt and plain message to the political and financial masters of our societies. That message is: the economics of exclusion and inequality must stop.

The message comes early in his ‘exhortation’ (called ‘Evangelii Gaudium’) and which has just been released by the Vatican. You will find it in Chapter 2 which is titled ‘Amid the crisis of communal commitment’. The main body of the exhortation has a lot of the usual evangelical language that such messages from the Vatican typically contain, but this chapter rings stark and true.

Francis has begun this section with: “It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an ‘ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times’. This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanisation which would then be hard to reverse.”

Vatican_Francis_evangelii_gaudiumHe gives a nod to the proponents of technological remedies to many of our contemporary problems: “We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications.” And then gets to the root of the issue with “at the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident”.

“It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.” This is a complaint as plain as any we have seen from those suffering from the effects of climate change, from the forced economics of austerity, from the land grabs and the perversions of democracy. It is possible that in the last sentence, Francis has also warned against the global spying (by the USA and its feckless allies) which included the Vatican too.

In the sub-section titled ‘No to an economy of exclusion’ Francis has made plain his opposition [get the English pdf here] to the current systems of power and control:
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalised: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Vatican_Francis_main“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.”

And in one angry paragraph, Francis effectively sends packing the army of macro-economists and financial manipulators who continue to claim that constant growth (GDP, economy, consuming, and so on) brings people out of poverty thanks to the ‘free market’.

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalisation of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

This is indeed revolutionary material from the Vatican. Now let’s see what effect it has on the suits in the G20, the banking parasites, the stock marketeers, the land grabbers, the ecological criminals in all our countries.

The carefully constructed mirage of the ‘green economy’

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Not a week goes by nowadays without one high-profile institution or high-powered interest group directing us all to be part of the ‘new, green economy’. That’s where the next jobs are, where innovation is, where the next wave of financing is headed, where the best social entrepreneurship lies. There are the big inter-governmental organisations telling us this: United Nations Environment Program, UNCTAD, OECD, International Energy Agency, the big international lending agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. There are big think-tanks telling us the same thing – backed up by hefty new reports that are boring to read but whose plethora of whiz-bang charts are colourful. There are big companies, multinationals and those amongst the Fortune 500, also evangelising the new green economy and patting themselves on the back for being clean and green and so very responsible.

Artisanal blacksmith and his family, Maharashtra, India

What on earth are they all talking about? Does it have to do with us average, salaried, harassed, commuting, tax-paying types who are struggling with food inflation and fuel cost hikes and mortgages and loans that break our backs? Are they talking to our governments and our municipalities, who are worried about their budgets and their projects and their jobs too?

Here are a few answers from working class Asia. Let’s start with restating a couple of trendlines. One, the era of growth in the West is over. Growth is Asia is what is keeping the MNCs and their investors and bankers and consultants interested, and this means China and India (also Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia). Two, the environmental consciousness which began in the 1970s to spread quickly in the West led to many good laws being framed and passed. These were responses to the industrial and services growth in the Western economies. As globalisation took hold, people in less industrialised countries – ordinary citizens – saw what had happened in the West and learnt from their experiences with industrialisation. Green movements took root all over Asia and South America, protests were common, confrontations just as much, and global capital found itself being questioned again, even more fiercely.

These are the two major trends. The forces of production want to move much further into what used to be the ‘developing’ world, but want to meet much less resistance. That’s why they appeal to the consumer minds of China, India and the other target countries – you need jobs, homes, nice cars, big TVs, cool vacations, credit, aspirations, and lifestyle is what the messages say, whether they’re from telecom companies or condominium salesmen. But it’s hard to market all this stuff – real stuff, virtual stuff – to people who are still struggling to make ends meet.

This was after all the old 'green economy'. A late 19th century painting in a maritime museum near Mumbai, India

That’s where the ‘new, green economy’ tagline and its earnest-sounding philosophy comes in. “The main challenges to jump-starting the shift to a green economy lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to specific local and sectoral needs, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and provide incentives and mechanisms that will facilitate their diffusion and knowledge-sharing,” said one of these recent reports. Look at the text which contains all the right buzzwords – ‘scale up’, ‘jump-start’, ‘applications’ (that’s a favourite), ‘knowledge-sharing’, ‘local’.

This makes the ‘old economy’ sound good but changes nothing substantial on the ground, or on the factory shopfloor or for the tens of thousands of little manufacturing units that do small piecework jobs for the bigger corporations up the chain. The world’s business philosophy has changed drastically even without the impact of environment and energy. To drive home this point, it has been a long time since we heard anything like ‘industrial relations’, and that alone should tell us how far the dominance of capital has reached, when labour, whose organisation gave the West its stellar growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s, has now become all but ignored. This is because the dominant interests associated with capital have insisted, successfully for investors and for pliant governments, that the manufacturing firms break loose from the industrial relations moorings they had established. The restructuring of firms to emphasise leaner and meaner forms of competition – as the ruthless management gurus and greedy consulting agencies instructed – was in line with market pressures that are viewed by the powers-that-be as crucial to the revitalisation of the economy.

Read their greenwash carefully and the control levers are revealed. “Further innovation and scaling up are also needed to drive down unit costs. Technologies will need to be ‘transferred’ and made accessible, since most innovation takes place in the developed countries and private corporations in those countries are the main owners of the intellectual property rights covering most green technologies.” So says ‘World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation’ (UNESCO, Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Rights and access are built in from the start, as you can see.

And yet it is this very system of production, of the arrangement of capital and of the effort to weaken working regulations that is now talking about the ‘green economy’. Why do they even imagine we should believe them? They are the ones who have remained locked into the fossil fuel economy and who have partnered the enormous influence of the finance markets, who have followed every micro-second of the way the dictates of capital flows and what the market investors want in their endless quest for greater profits in ever-shorter cycles of production. For the major business of the world, ‘green economy’ is yet another route to super-profits and the consolidation of both forces of production and masses of consumers. The difference between now and the 1970s is that today they are able to successfully enlist the apparently authoritative inter-governmental organisations with their armies of economists and social scientists and engineers, to support this new profiteering. Only now, the cost is planetary.

How the OECD dislikes poor Indians but covets their economy

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No you don't. Get your destructive sophistry away from my village and my community.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) has just released its Survey of India, and has said that “India now has the opportunity to move towards sustained and socially inclusive double-digit growth if the right policies are put in place”. The OCED survey said India’s economy has ranked among the best performers over the past decade, and poverty has been falling faster than in many other emerging economies. Pending a detailed reading of the report I can’t see how “best performer” and “falling poverty” can be applied to India, but the social and environmental dimensions of India’s so-called eocnomic growth may not be within the OECD’s scope in such a survey.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría presented the Economic Survey of India in New Delhi and there said: “Policymakers are to be commended on the remarkable catch-up achieved in recent years, making India one of main driving forces of the global economy. The priority given to more socially inclusive economic growth is appropriate and further reforms are needed to achieve it.” There are more such conceptual conundrums here – catch up with who? And for what? What “socially inclusive” growth is Gurria talking about – India has the world’s largest population of malnourished children and the world’s largest population of hungry people. This has been so for the entire period that the OCED said India was “catching up”.

To ensure strong growth continues and is sufficiently inclusive, the government needs to target public expenditure better on the poor, the OECD has said. “Although high growth has reduced poverty, progress could have been faster. Hundreds of millions of people still live below the official poverty line. Malnutrition and poor health are still widespread.” Evidently the OECD India Survey 2011 team saw no contradiction between what they have praised and what exists. Against this backdrop, the report advocates a strengthened welfare system and improved access to health care. “Government spending on health is only around 1% of GDP – among the lowest rates in the world. Private health care provision is increasing but quality is highly variable. Better regulation and oversight is needed.” This is true, but the Survey’s objectives lead all solutions away from more and better public healthcare.

The irrelevance of the GDP squiggle to most Indians goes unnoticed by the OECD

The report said that around 9% of GDP is spent on energy and other subsidies, most of which fails to reach the poor, and that diesel subsidies should be phased out. For other energy products, such as kerosene and LPG, susbidies should be transformed into cash payments targeted to the poorest people in society. The government needs to ensure that its plan to shift kerosene and fertiliser subsidies into direct cash transfers is implemented quickly. Here the roll-out of a Universal Identity Number will help ensure payments go to the right people.

The recommendations in this para are full of threat. A quick look at the full Survey itself shows that there is special mention made of the fuel subsidy and the targeted public distribution of foodgrain. If the free marketeer reformists were to have their way, these would both be scrapped overnight, to be replaced by a weekly or monthly dole, transferred electronically and validated by a new national identification number which is in theory supposed to prevent fraud and exclusion. This is dangerous for the poor, because it makes them directly vulnerable to the worst symptoms of profiteering and corruption – already rampant despite safeguards – and because it removes the responsibility from the state for providing good quality and cheap social services and provisions of daily living. In this, the OECD Survey sounds exactly like the IMF.

So tell me, OECD boys and girls, what do you know about guavas and cane?

The OCED report has otherwise welcomed the planned introduction of a nationwide goods and services tax and suggested that in order to keep the overall rate low, the base should be as wide as possible (there go more paisas from the cash transfer to the poor). “Further fiscal consolidation is also called for, making more funds available for private investment” – which means more cutting of the health, education and rural development programmes. “Cutting red tape for businesses and further lowering barriers to trade and investment will help both companies and households. The report also notes that while progress has been made to improve infrastructure, even greater investment in this area is necessary to boost growth.”

The Survey has said that strengthening the financial system and promoting access to financial services is essential for strong and inclusive growth. (We’re quite sick and tired of hearing about ‘inclusive growth’ when the Indian government and its foreign advisers do all they can every single day to prevent it.) The report noted that many Indians still lack access to bank accounts although microfinance is improving opportunities in many communities. “The financial sector proved resilient during the global downturn but there remains scope for greater competition.” Hear, hear.

The Survey has said that education has been given high priority by India’s central and state governments and enrolment continues to grow fast – we call them degree factories for the globalisation mill. The report recommends more effective government regulation and funding. Incentives and professional development opportunities for teachers need to be strengthened while student loans for higher education should be more widely available.

Now I expect the usual round of endorsement, referencing and studious quoting to begin. Within a few months, the recommendations of the OCED India Survey 2011 will assume an oracular hue, never mind the reactionary and anti-poor real nature of its advice. The multilateral lending institutions – the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank – will cite the Survey repeatedly. So will state governments in India and the central government. The armoury of those who assault the poor and the marginalised of India has been strengthened by a new weapon – this is the OECD contribution to the people of India.

China’s economy and its vulnerability to weather events

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A woman washes clothes as her son collects drinking water on an almost dried-up irrigation canal leading from Honghu Lake in central China's drought-stricken Hubei province. on May 29, 2011. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

What is the impact of the drought in China on the country’s economy and its growth rate? A Reuters news feature has attempted to provide a few answers. China’s economy is big enough to absorb this drought without slowing overall growth. But experts said the tenacious dry-spell has bigger lessons. After it passes, there are sure to be new floods and new droughts, and China’s economy will increasingly be affected by the country’s limited and unevenly spread water sources. “A single drought this year won’t lead to the collapse of China’s economy but this will have an impact, one that shows the threat that China faces from water stress,” said Xia Jun, a hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing told Reuters.

The months-long drought parching middle and lower parts of the Yangtze River basin is the latest reminder of the risks that China’s limited and heavily used water sources pose for the world’s second-biggest economy. Even before this drought, smaller lakes around Lake Honghu were disappearing, taken over for fields and fish farms.

Water from the Yangtze will be diverted to Beijing and other thirsty northern cities, but the Danjiangkou Dam that will deliver that water in coming years along the vast South-North Water Transfer Project is at its lowest for over a decade. Victims of the latest dry spell also range from the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, to millions of poor farmers like Wang and Xiao, an elderly couple.

“I’m 70 and it’s never been this bad,” Xiao, a browned and balding man, said of the 348-sq-km (134-sq-mile) lake in central Hubei province. “You can walk across and it only comes up to your knees.” The lake has shrunk to about 207 sq km of water and is mostly no deeper than 30 cm or so, according to the China News Service — at a time of year when residents said the water should be up to their chins. “We used to always worry about floods, not droughts,” said Xiao. “Not ones as bad as this.”

A woman shovels mud at her house after a landslide triggered by heavy rainfalls in Linxiang, Hunan province June 11, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Darley Wong

That sentiment is echoed by many residents on the middle and eastern stretches of the Yangtze, which is China’s biggest river and an the artery feeding much of China’s farming and industrial heartlands. Officials have said those parts are enduring their worst drought in 50 years, and rainfall has shrunk by 40 to 60 percent of normal. Around Lake Honghu, thousands of farmers risk losing more crops, fish farms, and even drinking water if big rains fail to arrive soon. Many rice fields in the surrounding countryside are yellow or barren. Farmers use scarce water for keeping alive fewer fields or for the ponds used to raise lucrative fish, crab and shrimp. Dry lotus ponds with wilted plants dot the landscape. In other areas near the Yangtze, there is still enough water to sustain swathes of green rice stalks.

China has six percent of the globe’s fresh water resources but a fifth of the world’s population. Global warming could stoke pressures, said Xia and other experts. “There have been even worse droughts before, but now these episodes can be increasingly serious, because economic development is bringing increasing pressure on water resources, and the effects of disaster spread out wider and are felt in more ways,” said Xia.

AlertNet has reported that torrential rains battered central and southern China. Quoting local reports, AlertNet said the rains led to floods and landslides that killed more than 100 people, turning areas enduring drought just over a week ago into scenes of muddy destruction. Forecasters warned that intense rain was likely to keep striking some areas through Monday and beyond.

In Yueyang in Hunan province in the south, weather stations recorded more than 200 millimetres (eight inches) of rain in six hours, the kind of downpour that hits once every 300 years, the China News Service reported, citing local officials. In Maojiazu Village in Yueyang, the pelting downpours triggered a mudslide that crushed 24 homes and killed at least 20 residents, with another seven missing under boulders and dense mud, most likely dead, the Xinhua news agency reported.

“The concentrated scope, intensity and short duration of these recent rains have caused grave casualties and damage to property in some areas,” said Chen Lei, the Minister of Water Resources who also oversees the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, according to a report on its website.

The office warned that heavy rains along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River basin could trigger floods in an area gripped by drought less than two weeks ago. By late Saturday, the floods across parts of 13 provinces had killed 94 people with 78 missing, damaged 465,000 hectares (1,800 square miles) of crops, and toppled 27,100 houses and other buildings, the flood and drought office said. By later on Sunday, Hunan province lifted the number of people killed by floods and mudslides there to 36, up from an estimate of 19 given on Saturday, meaning the updated nationwide death toll could have reached at least 111.

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