Event ReportsPublished on Feb 17, 2011
The contradictions in the path of India's global rise and its accompanying stature as an important player in international affairs, while it grapples with issues of food security, rising prices, inflation and governance challenges, were highlighted by senior academician Dr. Mira Kamdar at a talk titled "Can the Centre hold?" at Observer Research Foundation recently (February 17).
Can the Centre hold?

The contradictions in the path of India’s global rise and its accompanying stature as an important player in international affairs, while it grapples with issues of food security, rising prices, inflation and governance challenges, were highlighted by senior academician Dr. Mira Kamdar at a talk titled "Can the Centre hold?" at Observer Research Foundation recently (February 17).

Chairing the meeting, Dr. Mohan Guruswamy, Chairman of the Centre of Policy Alternatives, said this topic was generally ignored in India these days. The spectacle of India’s high economic growth, the rise among the global elite, and India’s knock on the door of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) obstructed the view of the real situation within the country.  The focus remained only on what has been achieved. The fact that over 500 million people on the margins of the growth process determined India’s future is conveniently ignored. This is really a challenge for governance, Dr. Guruswamy  asserted.

Dr. Kamdar said though India is moving up on the international ladder and is being seen as a country that leads, but there are several issues that India still has to grapple with, despite its achievements so far. She made it clear that the issues of governance crises in Kashmir and the north eastern states of India were not part of her presentation.

India’s role at the climate talks at Cancun or at the G 20 or at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) all posit it as a country that leads. This is demonstrated by the fact that the U.S. is backing India for a permanent seat at the UNSC. There may be questions on when this will be finally realised. However, this signals the importance of India as a global player. India’s business houses abroad are rapidly expanding. An example of this is the fact that the largest manufacturing employer in the U.K. is the Tata Company -- an Indian company.

Despite its heightened international stature, India has experienced several crises in internal governance. Examples range from the Radia tapes case to the 2G scam to the corruptions during the Commonwealth Games hosted in India in 2010.There is no institution in India that has not been affected by corruptions and scandals. Besides this, the widening wealth gap in India is massive. India’s millionaires represent a third of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This exists alongside the fact that India is facing an agricultural crisis, plus food prices’ rise along with regional conflicts. Inside India exists the world’s largest communist insurgency and that too within a democracy? she pointed out.

Focusing on the credibility of India’s governance, Ms. Kamdar said the daily headlines in newspapers question even the Prime Minister’s abilities to manage problematic situations. Dr. Kamdar also raised the question if India will come undone even as it comes along as a major global power. Citing Egypt’s case, Dr. Kamdar stated that facts such as being an ally of the U.S., or of having flourishing tourism do not help if the leadership of the country loses credibility. Basic public goods such as health care, education, transportation, jobs etc. have to be ensured. If these are not ensured, then a loss of credibility of the state’s abilities will take place. The difference between Egypt and India definitely is that while the former is a dictatorship, the latter is one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. Yet the comparison of the two is worth looking into because of enough resonances between the two cases, she argued.

Speaking on the issue of ’corporate cronysism’, Dr. Kamdar said if India does not watch against it, it may become one of the largest oligarchies of the world. A ’Latin Americanisation’ of India could take place. To prevent this, the relation between the state and corporate interests should be looked into closely. The issue of ’outright autocracy’ is also one of concerns for India. Money involved in the 2G scam, land grabs across the country, and the resources appropriated by different interests are examples of this, she argued. The political risks of non sustainable development are myriad for India. There are several contestations in the stages of development. India, which is undergoing development phases, will also face the same. There have been centuries of upheaval in the West while it passed from one stage of development to the other, and this will take place even in India as it attempts to move from one phase of development to the other, Dr. Kamdar pointed out. The protests taking place in India are manifestations of the desperation of the population, and the existence of the communist revolution in India- one of the most vibrant democracies is an indicator of this.

Quoting data from a report of the Asian Development Report (ADB), Dr. Kamdar pointed out that the Gini coefficient in India has been rising. The inequality between the haves and haves nots has increased tremendously in India. Besides this, the crisis of inflation is alarming. The food price inflation in India is high, and 100 million additional Indians have been added to the ranks of poor. The exact count of the poor will however be released only when the Census is released.  Basic food is too expensive for a substantial number of Indians. Even though the government has tried to address these issues through policies such as mid day meals and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), regional disparities in the effects produced by these policies remain.

The voices of the rural poor on what is good for them are not taken into cognizance during the process of policy formulation regarding their livelihoods, Dr. Kam dar said. Examples of this include industrial and mining projects undertaken in tribal belts of India, or the setting up of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Nandigram and Singur in the state of West Bengal. All of this has regional and national implications. The conflict between development and the promotion of business interests needs to be looked into. On the one hand mining companies are being asked to invest more in parts of India by the Government of India (GoI), while local people lose their lands and employment, and environment gets detrimentally affected as well. Issues such as these need an urgent look, she argued.

Even urban India has its own share of problems. Infrastructural levels have gone up but the level of public services is still low. Roads are being constructed to accommodate the growing number of automobiles, but the pedestrians and cyclists who form the most vulnerable sections in urban India are not thought of. Citing Madhavi Pallavi’s work on the issue, Dr. Kamdar pointed out how the highest number of casualties of the pedestrians. No other city in India has the infrastructure capabilities Delhi metro has. At the same time, Delhi has no bicycle paths or side walks. The urban infrastructure is built on the concept of the 20th century modernity -- on the notions of construction of new private spaces, following the American model, Dr. Kamdar said. As a result what has emerged are ’gated communities’, and a complete privatisation of living spaces. But this is disconnected from the lives of a large number of people. There is a need to focus on the creation of spaces keeping the larger populations in mind. Even in the way an average Indian emits carbon reflects the pursuit of the American model. This needs a rethink.

In the concluding part of the presentation, Dr. Kamdar read out a report from The New York Times on the situation in Egypt so that the stark similarities between India and Egypt become clearer to the audience. She concluded stressing the need for change from the top down to bottom up. As such there is a need to deepen democracy and to build active partnerships between non state organisations and government organisations in order to prevent a further crisis of governance in India.

Noted finance expert Dr. Surjit Bhalla, who was the discussant, said that there was no need to be pessimistic on India’s future.  He argued that her presentation was based on qualitative evidence, and unlike Egypt, India granted economic and political freedoms to its citizens.

Dr. Kamdar’s factual analysis rested on flimsy evidences, Dr. Bhalla said, questioning  her assertions about the exisitng inequalities in India. Citing examples of the transitional economies, he said that inequalities in such countries rose between 30-40 per cent while India’s case has not been that bad.

He pointed out that in any case, Asia has had a constant income inequality. And, unlike what was presented by Dr. Kamdar, the National Sample Survey (NSS) measured inequalities in the country. He said the role of education as a great equaliser has not been looked at as it helps in reducing inequalities. India has definitely made a lot of progress in the sector of education, he said.

Speaking on the Naxal movement and its growth in the country, Dr Bhalla said it was not correct to say that a third of country’s districts were affected by the Maoist insurgency.  The distress faced by farmers resulting in their suicides was also fallacious as the percentage of farmers’ suicides out of the overall suicide figures was very small.

(This report is prepared by Ms. Sriparna Pathak, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)

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