India is on horseback
Pepsi-Cola in one hand, clutching condom in another
Third armed with Rampuri knife, in fourth the ‘Hari Om’ banner
What a seductive, dashing fellow, India on horseback.
– Ashtabhuja Shukla in Bharat ghode par sabar hai
New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA) falls in the territory of Uttar Pradesh and is administered from Lucknow. But for all practical purposes, it is an extension of the New Delhi metropolis. This teeming township is the brainchild of Sanjay Gandhi, enfant terrible of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He conceived Noida as an urban cluster that would take the “immigrant load” off the stately boulevards of New Delhi.
At the height of his megalomania, during the years of dreaded Emergency (1975-1977), Sanjay initiated a brutal beautification drive to free the Indian capital of what he called “filth”. He wanted the streets of New Delhi safe for his People’s Car. Though he failed to produce a single piece of his pet vehicle, the ideology that he let loose has begun to canter. Consumerism, chauvinism, criminality and communalism are the four arms of the monster astride the horse called Growth – with an upper-case G, as in Globalisation. This beast tramples over the weak, the marginalised, the poor and the differently-abled, even as its rider gloats over the devastation it has wrought in its wake. The village of Nithari on the outskirts of Noida is a testimony to the cruelties of this brute (see accompanying story, “Questions about Nithari”).
It is tempting to dismiss the horrors of Nithari as an aberration. It is even more convenient to make a scapegoat of the culprits. Explanations of personal pathology have the strange effect of transforming perpetrators of grisly crimes into victims of human failings. But the ease with which Moninder Singh Pandher and his servant Surender Koli are accused of engaging in horrifying acts of molestation and murder of children is a symptom of a much deeper malaise, a social disease slowly eating into the innards of Southasian society. It is dreadfully difficult to describe a devil, and superstitiously dangerous to name it; but call it ‘Sezophilia’, as in paedophilia, to understand its nature. Sezophilia claims many victims as it matures, but it begins to devour migrants from the moment its initial symptoms manifest.
Sezophilia is named after Special Economic Zones (SEZs), hybrid territorial entities that enjoy more ‘liberal’ economic laws than does the rest of a country. Deng Xiaoping is credited with having pioneered the concept in the 1980s, with an eye towards letting capitalism enter gingerly into the world’s strongest communist bastion. The disease has since completely transformed the People’s Republic of China; now it is a safe haven for exploitative capitalists from all over the world. As a Johnny-come-lately to the liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation race, India wants to do in two years what China took two decades to achieve.
According to the Indian government’s investment policies, SEZs are deemed to be foreign territories for the purpose of trade, duties and tariffs. New Delhi has already created over 200 SEZs across the length and breadth of India, and wants to have many more to encourage the Salems and Tatas of the world to feel welcome and safe in Nandigram and Singur. A multi-partisan consensus seems to have developed over the desirability of SEZs. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) wants them in West Bengal and Kerala, Congress (I) would love to have them all over the place, and the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot do without these enclaves in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Samata Party of Amar Singh would do anything to let moneybags have their way in Uttar Pradesh.
SEZs have thus all too quickly become fait accompli in India. These territorial creations seem to be compulsions of a future Southasia, as states of the region vie with each other for ever-elusive foreign investment currently flowing towards Thailand, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries. At this juncture, attempts need to be made to understand the symptoms of Sezophilia so that social treatments for its debilitating psychological effects can be devised before it is too late.
Contempt for the powerless
The logic of SEZ-based economic growth assumes that ‘back-the-winner’ is the best strategy for countries mired in poverty, lack of savings, low investment, slow growth and low consumption leading to stagnancy and deprivation. This is the reasoning that sometimes makes race-horse breeders shoot the infirm in the stables. State-of-the-art technology, competitive pay packages and cutthroat completion make SEZs oases of ‘excellence’ in the desert of mediocrity. Even when there is acute shortage of drinking water in New Delhi, sprinklers on the Noida golf course – said to be among the best in the region – run on as usual. Were it not for the objections of the super-rich in their designer houses, the Noida administration would have built a kilometre-high building to mark the arrival of India on the global capitalist map.
Another manifestation of Sezophilia is the creation of urban agglomeration sans urbanisation. Urbanisation implies development of secondary associations. In an urban settlement, trade unions, social clubs, cultural associations and professional organisations take the place of institutions of primary bonding such as family, neighbourhood, clan, caste or tribe. In settlements that grow around SEZs, every individual of some means is a ruthless dictator, unwilling to submit to any association that he cannot dominate. Pandher probably thought that he could lord over Nithari village with relative ease, so he built his kothi away from the dwellings of his equals.
The third symptom of the social disease is even more insidious, as ‘Westoxication’ (the fixation on symbols of the West) is understood as the only method of modernisation. Masala chai in earthen cups is a thing of ridicule, but sweetened soda in a plastic bottle is a badge of honour. Eating puri-bhaji from a leaf plate is infra dig, but gnawing at stale meat in a burger is posh. These innocent symptoms hide a deeper contempt for the powerless than visible on the surface. The modernised elite begin to treat the laggards as lesser beings. The victims of Muktsar in Punjab were rag-pickers. The women and children of Nithari were poor immigrants from Bihar, Bengal and Nepal. They were aliens for the comfortable classes of Noida – the administration, the police, the media, and the civil society did not think of them as being worthy of their attention. The establishment was forced out of its slumber only when the court poked in its nose and wanted an answer concerning the whereabouts of a missing teenager girl from Uttarakhand. At least 40 victims appear to have been devoured in Nithari alone, but the Indian intelligentsia refuses to recognise it as the manifestation of a lurking disease worthy of serious attention.
The fourth manifestation of this social pathology strikes its victims who flock to SEZs like moth to flames. They either die by its intense heat – as when their children are run over by speeding SUVs, which the police refuse to record even as accidents – or are condemned to live in the darkness below the lamp. Pandher and Koli attracted their victims with promises of sweets or a seat on the sofa at the screening of DVD movies. Born and brought up in tightly-packed bastis where one cannot survive for a single day without blindly trusting the neighbours, these children were betrayed by their gullibility. Attracted by the opportunity to take a peek at heaven – for that is precisely what they presume to be inside the kothis – they were consumed by the fire of hell that resides in the houses of the rich without conscience.
Migrants on the margins
Without cheap migrant labour, the horse of growth will starve and the engine of capitalism will grind to a halt. Capitalism thrives by creating migrants – it evicts poor cultivators from their farmlands, marginalises the unskilled by introducing high-tech manufacturing and forces organised labour to accept contract employment. The result is invariably the same: helpless, hopeless and desperate drifters at the margins of cities begin to flock to saviours on horseback. In Bombay, organised crime shelters and exploits migrants from Purvanchal and Udipi alike. In New Delhi, they rush to dealers of vote-bank politics for protection and are often mistreated and abused in return.
Like a swashbuckling knight astride a stallion, Manmohan Singh is busy spreading the gospel of globalisation everywhere. It seems that the ruling clique in New Delhi has accepted the inevitability of thousands of Nitharis, as hundreds of SEZs are built to produce millions of Pandhers. Perhaps that is the price a passive population has to pay to catch up with those ahead. Or there may be a far more destabilising outcome: mutiny of the masses, which will destroy islands of prosperity in the sea of poverty. Indira Gandhi learnt quickly the lesson of neglect of the masses. Her heir and super-premier, Sonia Gandhi, seems to be besotted with the legacy of her brother-in-law Sanjay. Even if only one of the ‘million mutinies’ gets out of hand, there is no telling the fate of globalising India – and by implication, the entire Southasia.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)