road from Madras to my home town Vellore in the south
of India is a bumpy ride however one makes it, inside
the sturdy old Ambassador cars or in the new light-weight
Marutis, in a crowded bus or an air conditioned taxi.
No lanes. The traffic moves erratically as it wills
and the black tar fades incoherently into sand and
thorn bushes. On one side, the soil has been dug up
for the Golden Quadrilateral, an ambitious highway
network running north to south and east to west, and
hundred year old trees have been cut down to make
way for it. My mother assures me on the way home that
this is the reason why it feels much hotter this summer.
Nobody bothers about two lanes - six? I wonder if
its worth an extra three degrees of heat in July when
the monsoon fails.
there is the Hyundai factory. It is one of the many
gleaming new buildings dotting the road in this part
of South India. Medical colleges catering to Non Resident
Indians (NRI's), international schools - the globe
has spun into the villages.
a "foreign-returned" Indian, this "progress'
can be soothing. It soothes one's guilt over leaving
behind the millions who lead attenuated existences
in the shadows. The meals on the trains used to be
served in moistened banana leaves that were plucked
in front of you and thrown away after; today they
are wrapped in tin foil or come in plastic or cardboard
containers like the cheerfully colored juice packs
the Marutis have been joined by other cars. At some
haunt of high life in the city I read of Porsches
and Benzes, although who would risk taking them out
an Indian road it is hard to imagine. Plastic knives
and forks, cloth napkins, internet access everywhere
in little shops and booths, a small but well-stocked
air-conditioned super market with shopping carts,
bored store girls, and wide empty aisles. These are
the sorts of pictures that when we see them on t.v.
make us feel that, after all, the world is getting
better, technology and capitalism are always making
things better everywhere. The free market triumphs
again. The campesino and the conglomerate are working
hand in hand.
the gaudy varnish chips easily and underneath there
is a darker picture. Since the Hyundai factor opened
up, water has been in short supply for miles around.
Water that is needed for drinking, washing, cooking.
In temperatures of 48 degrees centigrade, a shortage
of water is a death sentence. Last year, the death
toll from an unexpectedly hot dry summer was in the
an upper middle class family feels the pinch, how
does it feel when you have to walk a mile to the well
with a squalling infant tugging at your sari and nothing
to protect your head from the ferocious sun except
a thin piece of old cotton? The Hyundai factory guzzles
water. And electricity. And land. But it's a fine
place to work for some people, I've heard. And, after
years of those trundling old Ambassadors, it will
be splendid to see the foreign cars zip up and down.
and transportation and industry are what the globe
brings with it for some, but who stands by to measure
the fall out on everyone else? The collateral damage
of multinational companies cannot compete with war;
Cancun can't compete with Iraq for public interest,
but is death from dehydration any less painful than
death from a bullet?
Karnataka state, small farmers like the campesinos
at Cancun, have killed themselves in frustration over
the onslaught of the multinationals in their countries.
They are the immediate and dramatic victims of globalization
but there are many others. Some indigenous medicines
and herbs used for centuries are now up for grabs
because of the multinationals moving in to patent
them. The most famous case has been turmeric - the
yellowish powder used to color rice and other foods
in India In 1995, 2 expatriate Indians at the University
of Mississipi Medical Center, Suman Das and Hari Har
Cohly, applied for a patent for the use of turmeric
in wounds. Turmeric has been used traditionally for
centuries for that and many other purposes and the
Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research
promptly challenged the patent, even producing an
article written in 1953 in the Journal of the Indian
Medical Association that quoted ancient Sanskrit texts
that referred to turmeric's use. Ultimately the patent
was withdrawn. But nine other such patents on turmeric
have been applied for. And there are other indigenous
foods like basmati rice and neem leaves that also
have had patents granted for particular uses.
property rights are at the core of the World Trade
Organization debate between the developed and underdeveloped
countries - the former wanting to extend them, the
latter wanting to restrain them. American trade lawyers
argue that since patent laws are not much in vogue
in the third world, they are not properly understood
and that only new and original uses of traditional
foods and herbs are being patented, not well known
uses. They point out that without patent protection,
the incentive for drug companies to undertake long
drawn out and uncertain research disappears. Here
again, the rhetoric is of the free market, but the
actual practice is a demand for the state to protect
industry and grant it monopoly rights. And it is the
biggest industries that are being supported by the
state granted monopolies - "big pharma,"
which has the highest paid executives and rakes in
the biggest profits. Meanwhile, the simple vitamins
that could save millions of children from disease
and death are already well known to us and do not
need expensive Research & Development programs.
If the market really worked as it should, freely,
the campesinos would win much more frequently than
they do now.
to frame the debate as one between campesino and conglomerate,
countryside and commerce is to have already conceded
it, for Globalization, like Modernity, like Science,
Progress, or any other capitalized abstraction is
of course irresistible and irreversible. Only Luddites,
medievalists, agrarian romantics, and born-again hippies
- the Birkenstock brigade - would stand in its way.
These are the straw-men who allow corporate apologists
to dismiss the anti-globalization movement as irrational
or adolescent We need new ways of speaking. It is
not modernity which is the enemy. It is the relentless
form of one type of economic production that is propagandized
and supported by the state. Without agricultural subsidies,
the big farmers would be out of business, beaten by
the small farmers. The conglomerates would take a
licking from the campesinos.
resistance to the multinationals is not a resistance
to globalization. It is a cry to retain the perspective
of the village, the perspective of the human. What
we need today are activists FOR globalization, but
a human globalization not an inhuman one.
Rajiva is a free-lance journalist and activist who
writes for alternative print and online media, and
adjuncts at the University of Maryland and at Towson
University in Baltimore, MD.
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