Capitalism: a ghost story

March 17, 2012

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IS IT a house or a home? A temple to the new India, or a warehouse for its ghosts? Ever since Antilla arrived on Altamount Road in Mumbai, exuding mystery and quiet menace, things have not been the same. "Here we are," the friend who took me there said. "Pay your respects to our new ruler."

Antilla belongs to India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani. I'd read about this most expensive dwelling ever built, the 27 floors, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and the six hundred servants. Nothing had prepared me for the vertical lawn-a soaring, 27-storey high, wall of grass attached to a vast metal grid. The grass was dry in patches; bits had fallen off in neat rectangles. Clearly, trickledown hadn't worked.

But gush-up certainly has. That's why in a nation of 1.2 billion, India's 100 richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.

The word on the street (and in the New York Times) is, or at least was, that after all that effort and gardening, the Ambanis don't live in Antilla. No one knows for sure. People still whisper about ghosts and bad luck, Vastu and Feng Shui. Maybe it's all Karl Marx's fault. (All that cussing.) Capitalism, he said, "has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, that it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."

In India, the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-IMF "reforms" middle class-the market-live side by side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty rupees a day.

Mukesh Ambani is personally worth $20 billion. He holds a majority controlling share in Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) a company with a market capitalisation of $47 billion and global business interests that include petrochemicals, oil, natural gas, polyester fibre, special economic zones, fresh food retail, high schools, life sciences research and stem cell storage services.

The RIL recently bought 95 per cent shares in Infotel, a TV consortium that controls 27 TV news and entertainment channels, including CNN-IBN, IBN Live, CNBC, IBN Lokmat, and ETV in almost every regional language. Infotel owns the only nation-wide licence for 4G broadband, a high speed 'information pipeline' which, if the technology works, could be the future of information exchange. Mr Ambani also owns a cricket team.

The RIL is one of a handful of corporations that run India. Some of the others are the Tatas, Jindals, Vedanta, Mittals, Infosys, Essar and the other Reliance (ADAG), owned by Mukesh's brother Anil. Their race for growth has spilled across Europe, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their nets are cast wide; they are visible and invisible, over-ground as well as underground.

The Tatas, for example, run more than 100 companies in 80 countries. They are one of India's oldest and largest private sector power companies. They own mines, gas fields, steel plants, telephone, cable TV and broadband networks, and run whole townships. They manufacture cars and trucks, own the Taj Hotel chain, Jaguar, Land Rover, a publishing company and a chain of bookstores. Their advertising tagline could easily be: You can't live without us.

According to the rules of the gush-up gospel, the more you have, the more you can have.

The era of the privatisation of everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India's new mega-corporations Tatas, Jindals, Essar, Reliance, Sterlite, are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot that is spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It's a dream come true for businessmen-to be able to sell what they don't have to buy.

CREATING HAPPINESS

Of late, the main mining conglomerates have embraced the arts - film, art installations and the rush of literary festivals that have replaced the 1990s obsession with beauty contests. Vedanta, currently mining the heart out of the homelands of the ancient Dongria Kond tribe for bauxite, is sponsoring a 'Creating Happiness' film competition for young film students who they have commissioned to make films on sustainable development.

Vedanta's tagline is 'Mining Happiness'. The Jindal Group brings out a contemporary art magazine and supports some of India's major artists (who naturally work with stainless steel). Essar was the principal sponsor of the Tehelka Newsweek Think Fest that promised 'high octane debates' by the foremost thinkers from around the world, which included major writers, activists and even the architect Frank Gehry. (All this in Goa while activists and journalists were uncovering massive illegal mining scandals that involved Essar.)

Tata Steel and Rio Tinto (which has a sordid track record of its own) were among the chief sponsors of the Jaipur Literary Festival (Latin name: Darshan Singh Construction Jaipur Literary Festival) that is advertised by the cognoscenti as 'The greatest literary show on Earth'. Counselage, the Tatas 'strategic brand manager', sponsored the Festival's press tent. Many of the world's best and brightest writers gathered in Jaipur to discuss love, literature, politics and Sufi poetry. Some tried to defend Salman Rushdie's right to free speech by reading from his proscribed book, The Satanic Verses.

In every TV frame and newspaper photograph the logo of Tata Steel (and its tagline; Values stronger than steel) loomed behind them, a benign, benevolent host. The enemies of free speech were the supposedly murderous Muslim mobs, who, the festival organisers told us, could have even harmed the schoolchildren gathered there. (We are witness to how helpless the Indian government and the police can be when it comes to Muslims.)

Yes, the hardline Darul-uloom Deobandi Islamic seminary did protest Rushdie being invited to the festival. Yes, some Islamists did gather at the festival venue to protest and yes, outrageously, the Rajasthan government did nothing to protect the venue. That's because the whole episode had as much to do with democracy, vote banks and the UP elections as it did with Islamist fundamentalism.

But the battle for free speech against Islamist fundamentalism made it to the world's newspapers. It is important that it did. But there were hardly any reports about the festival sponsors' role in the war in the forests, the bodies piling up, the prisons filling up.

Or about the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, which make even thinking an anti-government thought a cognizable offence. Or about the mandatory public hearing for the Tata Steel plant in Lohandiguda which local people complained actually took place hundreds of miles away in Jagdalpur, in the collector's office compound, with a hired audience of 50 people, under armed guard. Where was free speech then?

No one mentioned Kalinganagar. No one mentioned that journalists, academics and filmmakers working on subjects unpopular with the Indian government - like the surreptitious part it played in the genocide of Tamils in the war in Sri Lanka, or the recently discovered unmarked graves in Kashmir - were being denied visas or deported straight from the airport.

But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses. We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata hotels, sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khatey hain. We're under siege.

If the sledge-hammer of moral purity is to be the criteria for stone-throwing, then the only people who qualify are those who have been silenced already. Those who live outside the system; the outlaws in the forests or those whose protests are never covered by the press, or the well-behaved dispossessed, who go from tribunal to tribunal, bearing witness, giving testimony.

But the Jaipur Literary Festival gave us our Aha! moment. Oprah came. She said she loved India, that she would come again and again. It made us proud.

Note: The full length article is available on Dawn.com