Thomas Friedman's Imaginary World

23 June 2005 |


If it's Monday, it must be Bangalore. Thomas Friedman's back in India and the mysterious subcontinent exercises its usual sorcery on the wandering pundit, eliciting paragraphs of ecstatic drivel, as it has from so many Times-men.

My favorite remains a post-Christmas dispatch, published onDecember 27, 2002, by the NYT's resident correspondent in India at the time, Keith Bradsher. It was a devotional text about neoliberalism's apex poster boy at the time, Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, Time's "South Asian of the year", hailed by the Wall Street Journal as "a model for fellow state leaders".

After composing a worshipful resume of Naidu's supposed achievements, Bradsher selected for particular mention a secret weapon that the canny reporter deemed vital to Naidu's political grip on Andhra Pradesh. "Naidu and his allies", Bradsher disclosed to the NYT's readers, "speak Telugu, a language spoken only in this state and by a few people in two adjacent states." What Bradsher was saying was that Naidu spoke the same language as the nearly 80 million other inhabitants of Andhra Pradesh. It was as though someone ascribed Tony Blair's political successes in the United Kingdom to his command of English.

Apart from Naidu's wondrous fluency in his native tongue, Bradsher fixed upon other achievements likely to excite an American business readership: "Mr. Naidu," he confided, "has succeeded in raising electricity prices here by 70 per cent" and "has enacted a law requiring union leaders to be workers from the factory or office they represent Andhra Pradesh has also relaxed some of the restrictions on laying off workers".

A couple of years later, in May 2004, the posterboy pal of Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and the World Bank's then chief, John Wolfenson, endured the verdict at the polling booth of his fellow Telugu speakers. The verdict was harsh. The very poor, the not-so-poor, farmers, rural women, inner city-dwellers, all stated conclusively that life had got worse in Andhra Pradesh, prices were unconscionable and the Naidu was a fraud. Naidu's elected coalition plummeted from 202 seats to a quarter of that number. He and his party were ignominiously tossed from office.

I remembered Bradsher's excited commendation of Naidu's hikes in the price of electricity and his anti-union rampages when I read the reports filed by U.S. correspondents and pundits from Paris, after the French Non! to the EC proposed constitution a couple of weeks ago. It was striking how many of them, presumably without any direct orders from the owners of their publications, started lecturing the French in the tones of nineteenth-century Masters of Capital.

The "Non", they howled, disclosed the cosseted and selfish laziness of French workers. On inspection this turned out to mean that French workers have laws protecting their pensions, health benefits, leisure time and other outlandish buttresses of a tolerable existence. No one was more outraged than Friedman, a man who, we can safely surmise, does have health benefits, enjoys confidence about his retirement along with a robust six-figure income plus guaranteed vacations plus a pleasant ambulatory existence living in nice hotels, confabbing with CEOs, and lecturing gratified businessmen on their visionary nature and the virtues of selfishness.

From Bangalore Friedman issued a furious rebuke. "French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day. Next to India, Western Europe looks like an assisted-living facility with Turkish nurses." I guess it does, though "engineers" is rather a dignified label to fix on the cyber-coolies ­ underpaid clerical workers ­ who toil night and day in Bangalore's call centers. But if you want a race to the bottom of the sort Friedman calls for, you don't have to travel too far from Bangalore, maybe ­ though any direction will do ­ north-east into the former realm of posterboy Naidu to find an Indian reality compared with which the so-called IT breakthroughs in India are like gnat bites on the hide of one of those buffaloes you see in photos in articles headlined "Timeless India Faces Change".

In the Naidu years at least 5,000 Indian farmers committed suicide. Across India, they're still killing themselves. (A Kisan Sabha ­ farmers' union ­ survey of just 26 households in Wayanad, in northern Kerala, that had seen suicides shows a total debt of over Rs. 2 million. Or about Rs. 82,000 per household (which is the equivalent of just under $2,000. The average size of these farms is less than 1.4 acres. And a good chunk of that debt is owed to private lenders.)

Millions more lives millimeters from ruin and starvation. For hundreds of millions of poor Indians, Friedman's brave new world of the 90s meant globalization of prices, Indianization of incomes. The state turned its back on the poor. Investment in agriculture collapsed as rural credit dried up. As employment crashed in the countryside to its lowest ever, distress migrations from the villages ­ to just about anywhere ­ increased in tens of millions.

Foodgrain available per Indian fell almost every year in the 90s and by 2002-03 was less than it had been at the time of the great Bengal famine of 1942-43. New user fees sent health costs soaring, and such costs have become a huge component of rural family debt.

Newly commercialized education destroyed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of women, as families, given the narrowed options, favored sons over daughters. Farm kids simply dropped out. Even as the world hailed the Indian Tiger Economy, the country slipped to rank 127 (from 124) in the United Nations Human Development Index of 2003. It is better to be a poor person in Botswana, or even the occupied territories of Palestine, than one in India.

Remember, India has a billion people in it. Maybe 2 per cent of them get to fly in a plane or go online. Around 10 per cent are well off, another 10 per cent doing okay. On the most optimistic count we're left with over half a billion of the poorest people on the planet. You could build call centers every mile from Mumbai to Bangalore, stuff teenagers with basic American slang in there working Friedman's stipulated 35 hours a day servicing American corporations and you wouldn't make a dent in the problem, which is that you can't dump an agricultural economy, build a couple of Cyberabads and say with any claim to realism that a New and Better India has been born. New, yes. Better, no.

The trouble is, the Indian press, along with the visiting foreigners ­ forgets about that half billion. A Lakme India Fashion Week gets 450-500 journalists covering it. But with the exception of Sainath, now at the The Hindu, not a single Indian newspaper has a full time correspondent on the agrarian crisis beat, or poverty and deprivation beat.

India has done well in some senses at IT. But this is not a parable of private enterprise unchained. The topmost --­ elite of elite ­ Indian technologists / engineers come from a handful of institutions known as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). Most of the Silicon Valley people are from there.These are entirely state-set up, state funded institutions. Not a single one of them is private (established or owned. Now, there are alumni in the US pushing to privatize the very institutions that gave them everything.

As Sainath remarked to me, "It's is not as though there's Indian genius in software / IT ­ but almost none of this has been directed towards, has even sought to address basic problems of India. There are several such areas where Indian expertise (including from that very state of Andhra) could do wonders for some classes of poorer Indian. (Eg: traditional fishermen could have their boats fitted very cheaply with tailor made devicesthat would make a huge and often life-saving difference. Artisans could bypass middlemen through online exhibitions and marketing and so on.) To the extent this happens at all, it is very minimal, extremely tiny. Neither governments nor corporates nor NRI millionaires have shown much interest in this. On the other hand, look at the amount of effort that goes into IT trivia.

Most western correspondents only travel south west from Bangalore to Kerala to deride as "hidebound" a state that elected a Communist government in 1957, distributed land to the poor, has decent health stats, near 100 per cent literacy. In recent years the neoliberals have been running thing there too and in early June this year, in a by-election, voters gave their opinion on such matters as recent efforts to privatize education. Normally elections in Kerala are razor thin affairs. This by-election saw the Congress Party candidate shattered by a Communist Party (Marxist) in the Left Democratic Front who won with a margin over the Congress candidate of more than 40,000 votes, a Kerala record. The LDF is reckoned as a cinch to win the Kerala elections next year.

Take the Kerala result, throw in the rejection of Naidu and the BJP coalition last year and you get a pretty good picture of what large numbers of Indians don't like, namely Friedmanism in any shape or form, whether they read his columns in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, or even his crude version of English.

Friedman's "Grassroots" Movement

Barely had Friedman touched down in Bangalore before he discovered something amazing. People who know that their chances of getting a job improve if they know English, want to learn English. It beats starving.

Here's how Friedman puts it:

Sure, a huge portion of India still lives in wretched slums or villages, but more and more of the young cohort are grasping for something better. A grass-roots movement is now spreading, demanding that English be taught in state schools - where 85 percent of children go - beginning in first grade, not fourth grade.

"What's new is where this movement is coming from," said the Indian commentator Krishna Prasad. "It's coming from the farmers and the Dalits, the lowest groups in society." Even the poor have been to the cities enough to know that English is now the key to a tech-sector job, and they want their kids to have those opportunities.

And here's how P. Sainath, India's greatest journalist (and CounterPunch contributor) reacted to Friedman's great discovery:

This is phenomenal: can Friedman name one organization representing such a movement? Can he say what the actions of this "movement" have been? Certainly there is a demand for English ­ but there is also a demand for local languages in many states. Also, a demand for English (which is real amongst some classes) does not translate into a "grassroots movement". That's complete fiction.

Here's something you should know. Bangalore ­ the very city Friedman raves about ­ is home to a "grassroots movement", not for propagation of English, but Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka, of which state Bangalore is the capital city. This movement has in fact displayed chauvinistic features at times. There is a basis for some of their fears but their actions have been less than nice. Anyway, they demand that shops and establishments display their signboards in Kannad (which I support ­ so long as the shops and establishments are allowed to have them in any other languages theychoose to, as well).

Anyway, that's a "movement" ­ individuals and groups of people acting in concert with clear goals, political action and published literature etc.

There is certainly a demand for English among the lower-middle class and /or even some poorer groups' because they are the ones who need to bridge the gap.

Why wouldn't there be? This was an English colony for two centuries and that language, spoken by less than 5 per cent of the population, was privileged as it became the route to anything resembling a career (compare Latin in medieval Europe, or Sanskrit in parts of ancient India).

So did anyone take out processions or rallies demanding English be madethe local language? Did anyone picket cinema theatres demanding only English films be shown, or shown first? Did thousands of people go on a hunger strike demanding enforcement of English as the medium of instruction?

Certainly not! Is a middle class demand (that does make sense for people of some strata) which is reflected in efforts to get kids into English-medium schools ­ is that the same as a "Grassroots Movement"?

To this day, it remains a privileged tool of the elite. Those with this language have access to jobs and benefits and power others don't. I know the advantages it gave people like me. In JNU, I shared a room with a Mizo tribal who a far more sincere academic and student than myself. I loved the guy. I always scored 'A's and 'A-minuses' to his Bs and B minuses ­ solely because of my grasp of the English language. I grew up in a house where there were at least 300 books in English and two newspapers daily in that language and all of us spoke it at home.

He came from a part of the country where the nearest library having English books was 37 miles away from his home (and was actually the library of a church). It was totally unfair, and I never forgot it.

So naturally, there are people who want to have their children learn it. To even out the unfair gap.

Popinjay Flees London Gaulieter

What happened to that Horowitz-Hitchens outing to London? A couple weeks ago I suggested here that maybe the scheme perished for lack of subscribers. It seems I was correct in my surmise. A CounterPuncher sends us this list of reasons which he says were provided by Josefine Loewenberg, who apparently was the travel agent in Los Angeles in charge of booking.

Yes the David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens tour has been cancelled for the following reasons.

1) There were not enough people who signed up by the deadline of April 5, 2005.

2) Christopher Hitchens had to reduce his role in the tour due to a scheduling conflict.

3) The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, made recently some strong anti-Semitic statements.

Footnote: a shorter version of the first item appeared in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday. My full India Diary, from which I have taken a few paragraphs in this column, appears at interminable length, across no less than 12 pages, in the latest special double issue of CounterPunch newsletter. Call Becky Grant at 1-800-840-3683 to subscribe, or do so here on this site. And don't forget to order one of our 14 per cent T-Shirts, also depicted on this site, though the illustration does not do justice to the exquisite cottons and dyestuffs.


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