Allow me to put things in perspective right away. Most of you are painfully aware of the following facts: about 1.5 million Indians die of malaria every year; more than 1.5 million Indians succumb to TB every year and more than 2 million young children are killed every year by diarrhoea and related stomach disorders. I have absolutely no doubt that all right-thinking Indians often feel ashamed by these appalling numbers and the heartbreaking human misery that is hidden behind the statistics. And yet, India is awash with activists and NGOs who keep trumpeting from every available rooftop that AIDS is a kind of Biblical scourge that is devouring India. So persistent, so loud and so powerful are the voices of these activists and NGOs that many Indians think AIDS is one of the biggest killer diseases to stalk India. But how many unfortunate Indians are actually killed by AIDS? Not even one for every Indian that dies of malaria, TB or diarrhoea. Common sense demands: then why ignore TB and malaria and create such a hoopla about AIDS?
You guessed it. It just so happens that a certain corporate baron and philanthropist called Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates have been donating hundreds of millions of dollars for tackling AIDS in Third World countries. Yes, they do donate equally well to address some other health issues too, but the very word of AIDS conjures up magic that opens doors to vast donations, funds and incredible opportunities to travel around the world and schmooze with assorted do-gooders. So it is AIDS that everyone talks about – including page 3 people. Try talking and arguing with these activists about why we should be paying more attention to malaria and TB. The best response you will get is a derisive snort while the more ideologically evolved activists will accuse you of being a reactionary, a Neanderthal, a feudal and worse. Forget the jargon, AIDS is sexy. Who cares about TB and malaria?
Don’t you think that just about sums up the state of activism in India?
Let me make a few points here. First: no one with common sense will deny that AIDS is a serious problem. Second, the unfortunate fact is that TB and malaria are bigger problems. Third, anyone who denies this has a serious problem of misplaced priorities. If you are a CEO running a company or even senior manager running a division, you will know that priorities are critical. That’s what students of basic economics are taught: priorities determine the balance between unlimited needs and limited resources. Th at is what a good politician learns very quickly: how to prioritise the numerous – and often conflicting – demands. Th at is how societies, nation states and civilisations have evolved: by learning to prioritise and then trying to balance the conflicting priorities.
There will always be a conflict between security and human rights. Both are very important for a young democracy like India. There will always be a conflict between industrialisation and environment. Both are very important for sustainable growth of the Indian economy. There will always be a conflict between infrastructure projects and the people whose lives the projects will disrupt. Both matter. There will always be a conflict between new technologies like GM in agriculture and the preservation of existing pool of seeds and know-how. Both matter. There will always be a conflict between globalisation and the threat it poses to local communities and livelihoods. The real challenge is to nurture both.
Nobody (no one at least in his/her right senses) has ever said that balancing these conflicting priorities is simple. It has always been an incredibly tough, complex and demanding challenge, and will always remain so. Well governed societies with dollops of common sense seek a balance between these conflicting priorities. A democracy with the rights to free speech and protest offers the best method of resolving these conflicts. As philosophers have always known: democracy is a terrible way of governing and managing societies, but humanity is yet to find a better way. Indeed, the world is full of ‘isms’ and no sensible person will claim that the ‘ism’ they profess to believe in is the only solution.
The problem with contemporary India is that activists not just blindly believe that their ‘ism’ is the best; they also want to ram it down the throat of all Indians. God knows what ‘ism’ the Goddess of Small Things Arundhati Roy believes in. The fact is: Indian democracy has given her the freedom to rave, rant, protest, write, excoriate, condemn and demonise anything that tickles her fancy in a manner that no other Third World country would allow (I wonder what would be her fate if Arundhati Roy spouted venom of the kind she spouts here in Saudi Arabia or China or any of the hitherto Marxist paradises that existed before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991). I personally think she has every right to speak the way she speaks because we are indeed a democracy. In any case, she had publicly seceded from India back in 1998 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government went ahead with nuclear tests. The problem is not that. The problem is the utter contempt she has for the other point of view; the complete unwillingness to even consider that India confronts twin problems of internal security threats and human rights abuses. No wonder she was wallowing in ideological pleasure when she described the murderous Maoists as Gandhians with Guns even as they were planning to ambush and kill more than 75 CRPF personnel – most of them poor Indians whose cause she claims to espouse. So she travels from seminar to seminar, rally to rally, protest meet to protest meet condemning the Indian State and the security forces.
In her lexicon and world view: the only internal security threat that India faces is the Indian State. Now, what would happen if policy makers actually implemented her vision and embraced terrorists from Pakistan and her Gandhians with Guns as the real patriots of India? I suspect, she couldn’t care less. As the Activist Number One of India, her job is to denounce and condemn. And Roy – and hundreds of thousands of activists like her in India – have learnt the art of propaganda very well. I feel proud of India as a democracy when people like her rave, rant and shout. But I really start worrying about the future of India when persistent propaganda leads the government to start thinking of doing what she wants. Taken to the logical conclusion, the Roy solution is to dismantle the entire Indian armed forces, the paramilitary forces and the police.
The manner in which the ilk of Roy are chipping away at the foundations of the Indian State and society is so insidious that many people like you and me do not seem to recognise the terrifying consequences of the sustained hate propaganda they have launched. But I have little doubt that India will soon pay a price.
The more immediate impact of activists is on industrial projects. Week aft er week, we get to hear that pressure from activists has prompted the government to abandon an industrial or infrastructure project. The most immediate ones are the Vedanta and POSCO projects in Orissa. Let me not get into the details of the projects. Let me also clarify here that this magazine – and its sister publication The Sunday Indian – has often attracted the ire of corporate India in the form of legal notices and cases when we have highlighted their misdeeds – particularly when it comes to cheating poor citizens of their livelihoods while going for ambitious industrial projects. And yet, I do think that policy making in India is reaching a stage where we are happy to throw the baby away with the bath water. Th is is what the former collector of Kalahandi Pradeep Jena has to say about the now doomed Vedanta project: “When I was a district collector of Kalahandi, I have seen how people were happy and cheerful when it was declared that Vedanta Alumina Refinery Project proposal will be finalised at Lanjigarh. There was a welcoming atmosphere everywhere in the district since Kalahandi had not a single industry at that time. Public notion was that, overall development of the area and people can be achieved through industrialisation. But thereaft er, social activism gradually started against the project. Then gradually public opinion changed. I found it strange when I saw those, who once were welcoming the project, turning hostile towards industrialisation overnight. I don’t know why some people strategically want to keep away those primitive tribes from modern society and lifestyle?”
I mean, there is no doubt that Vedanta – and the off icials who allowed it to – violate rules and norms must be punished. But must the poor of Kalahandi be perpetually denied the benefi ts of industrial growth just because activists are convinced that they are better off in pristine poverty with a life expectancy of less than 45 years and infant mortality of more than 300 per thousand? I have been following the Posco controversy too where a committee appointed by Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh has declared that the Posco project violates tribal rights. Now, I have done my schooling in Orissa and fi nd it preposterous when the esteemed committee members say that tribals are being forcibly displaced by the Posco project. There never were tribals living traditionally in that area; the closest they lived was hundreds of kilometres away. Ask anyone in Orissa and she will tell you this is a fact. And yet, we – even in the media – have collectively swallowed this nonsense that the land needed for the Posco project is a traditional habitat of tribals!
That brings us to the darker side of activism which all of us know but feel too polite to publicly shout about. Says Rajesh Sharma, News Editor, Sandesh Daily, Ahmedabad, “The role of all these so called ‘activists’ is very clear. Most of them have a clear agenda to blackmail the industrialists. They raise the issue, protest heavily, hold rallies and dharnas and when the situation worsens as per their planning, they simply signal the other party for compromise. Not surprisingly, they ‘charge’ a heft y amount for setback. Th is kind of pre-planned and well intentional drive of protesting industrial projects is uprising. The time has come for authorities to take charge of the situation and give them a lesson.”
It is the proliferation of ideologically fanatical, India-hating and downright greedy activists that is giving a bad name to what was once considered a noble cause. I mean, look at someone like Aruna Roy. The lady gave up her job as an IAS officer and has been working with villagers in Rajasthan as an activist for close to four decades. Most people like you and me cannot even comprehend the dedication and commitment that Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy has displayed. But how many times have you heard her going out of her way seeking publicity and spouting venom against India?
The fact is: activism is now a sunrise sector where the opportunity to make tons of money and seek your 15 minutes of fame exists alongside the simple desire to help. No wonder the number of NGOs has grown from a little more than 1 lakh in the 1970s to more than 1.1 million currently. No wonder that foreign donations according to government have gone up during the same time from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than 4 billion dollars every year. No wonder that aid agencies like Oxfam lament that less than 500 NGOs in India actually follow ‘honest and transparent’ accounting practices.
I will provide one more example to conclude my argument. Everyone knows that Indian agriculture faces a crisis of stagnation and productivity, that the Indian farmer is in desperate need of help. But the largest number of NGOs and activists working in this sector are those who relentlessly oppose GM crops. They were so successful in city aft er city in portraying GM crops as an evil force during public hearings and debates that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh refused to allow them in India. Suffice to say that activists and vested interests in Europe spend millions of dollars opposing GM crops because it is primarily an American technological success. I am not saying GM crops off er a solution to India. But can we at least talk and debate about it please?
And what can India do about these India hating, development hating and ideologically fanatical activists and NGOs? If we remain a democracy, they have a right to be destructive. I am personally convinced a majority of Indians will sooner or later see through these gimmicks for what they are.