Transcript of Globalizing Inequality – a lecture by P. Sainath, sponsored by the Center for Social and Environmental Justice of Washington State University, Vancouver. Video by pdxjustice Media Productions.
pdxjustice Media Productions
a programme sponsored by the center for Social and Environmental Justice
Washington State University at Vancouver
Rural Reporter and Author
P. Sainath spoke at Washington State Universtiy in Vancouver, Washington on February 25, 2005.
Thank you very much, I’m delighted to be here.
I’ve come to the United States straight out of a place called Vyanad in Kerala, a very rich district until two years ago. One of the richest districts in the state of Kerala, in which agriculture has collapsed and there have been at least.. over.. OVER 150 farmer suicides since January last year.
At the same time in the urban metro of Delhi, about the time I left, and in fact a little before I left, was a celebration of a.. an activity of a different kind. On the one hand you have the farmers committing suicide and extreme distress. On the other hand, we were witnessing a phenomenon that is about 3 to 5 years old now – theme weddings.
A theme wedding is where you take about an acre or two of land and put up a replica of a great monument – maybe the Taj Mahal, maybe the Sistine chapel – if it’s a Bengali wedding. Even Kargil as a theme. And you spend millions and millions of rupees to put up a structure which is going to last 12 hours and then be dismantled after the wedding so as to ensure you exclusivity for your theme.
So this can cost millions of rupees, in fact tens of millions of rupees, because I think the last … one of the biggest was about 3 crores – that’s about 30 million rupees is spent on creating this theme wedding.
So on the one hand you had these farmers committing suicide in extreme distress, on the other hand you had this unbelievable display of opulence and wealth, but… we’ll come back to that story.
I’m coming in from Seattle where I noticed that the Tsunami still makes front page and that’s as good a starting point as any. Its right here on the front page, carries over. There’s more than a full page of Tsunami stories in this and I think it is a good starting point for our discussion tonight on inequality and the things you don’t get to know from your media.
Let’s take the Tsunami. Now all of us know that the Tsunami struck on… and the stories you don’t get to know even if they do appear minorly in the press somewhere. They give you a very different picture of the world functioning around the Tsunami.
Now everyone of us knows that the Tsunami struck on December 26th, devastated eleven nations, 200 thousand human beings died, 160 thousand of them in five countries and we know about the outpouring of the generosity, etc etc. Here’s something perhaps that most people don’t know.
Of the 11 nations devastated by the Tsunami, five, only five have anything approaching major stock exchanges. 5 countries of the 11 have major stock exchanges. These are india, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Here’s the news.
Within 72 hours of the Tsunami striking, as it became clear that the damage was phenomenal, every one of these five stock exchanges reached their historic high. Every one of these stock exchanges, the sensitive index went through the roof. The more the misery, the better the stock exchange did. Biggest records were set by the Indonesian. By the Jakarta Stock Exchange, where the maximum number of people – in the country where the maximum number of people died.
The SENSEX – the Sensitive Index of the Bombay Stock Exchange reached an all time high on January 3rd when it was absolutely clear that the Tsunami had been devastating in its impact. The JSX of Indonesia crossed one historic high after another. Every day it reached a different level.
The SETI – The S-E-T-I of Thailand. The Stock Exchange of Bangkok was higher than it had been at any point between 1997 and 2003.
The KLSC – The Kuala Lampur Stock Exchange of Malaysia reached its highest in five years and the CSE – the oil share index of Sri Lankan Stock Exchange clocked in at 16 points below its highest ever since it was founded.
Now, if it had happened with one stock exchange, coincidence. All five, the worst 5 affected countries have the best performing stock exchanges. What conclusion we draw from here?
Well, one conclusion you can draw from it, though paradoxically it doesn’t apply in this case – one conclusion [that] is generally true – the majority of those hit by the tsunami were trivial and meaningless to the stock markets. Yet, they were meaningful enough to send the stock markets through the roof. How did that happen, and why?
The people affected were mainly fisherfolk, poor people, domestic servants, people crowded into poor quarters along the coast. So they don’t – many of them have absolutely no participation in the stock markets. So to that extent, they are marginal and trivial to the functioning of the markets.
However, the stock markets of our time also represent the interests of those who make money out of grief. The sense that sent the market soaring was the smell of reconstruction dollars coming in.
So the greater the misery, the greater the dollars, the better the stock exchange did. No coincidence. You can play that for the one stock exchange. Not for the five stock exchanges of the five worst affected countries.
One of the great successes of economists and economics of the last twenty years is that we have completely divorced how economies are doing from how people are doing.
Economies can boom while people sink. And we have made stock markets central indicators of how economies and nations are doing. By that yardstick, the greater the misery of the people, the greater the misery of those hit by the tsunami, the better the stock markets did.
And the better the stock markets did, the better the nation is doing, because it is a central indicator of how national economies are doing. So the more miserable the poor, the better the countries are doing. In fact, I think it is a perfect metaphor of what’s really happening in the world.
Consider that the same Sensitive Index of the Bombay Stock Exchange, the SENSEX, in May 2004 at the moment of the greatest triumph of the Indian people, when an electorate of six hundred million people showed the world what democracy was about. Going to the polls in orderly democratic fashion… actually we know how to run elections, huh? … and some countries still do…. and an electorate of six hundred million people went out and against the predictions, the desires, the desperate desires of the Indian elite, the upper middle classes, every single opinion poll, exit poll, the intellectual elite, the pundits of the television channels… just annihilated the government they did not want.
Just did it. Against all the predictions and against the majority of the editorials in the newspapers, which took for granted that the government would return to power. That was the greatest moment of triumph of the Indian people. What happened? The stock market collapsed to its worst position in many many years.
At the point when the Indian people scored their greatest triumph, the stock market collapsed. At a time of enormous misery of the poor, the stock market reached its historic high, crossing 6,600 on the sensitive index for the first time.
That’s why I call the SENSEX the misery index. It operates in inverse proportion to the happiness of the … the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
But the tsunami was also remarkable, right? for its outpouring of generosity. I’m sure the generosity was genuine, and it would be nice as the United Nations says, last week if the money actually showed up, because less than a third of what was committed has actually shown up.
In the case of the Bam earthquake in Iran, less than 2% of what was committed has actually shown up two years later.
But yeah, I’m sure the generosity was deeply appreciated by all those affected fishermen I saw on the Nagapattinam coast who were wondering what to do with the large numbers of neck ties that have been gifted to them and discarded heavy overcoats as well, so there’s piles and piles of neckties around the place which, you know, sent to them in thoughtful kindness… I’m sure it will be appreciated even more when the money actually comes in.
I was asked on the way here about the fact that the Indian government did not allow in foreign relief agencies, but the only time in about fifteen years I found myself agreeing with the decision of the Indian government.
The last time you had twelve major agencies functioning after the Gujarat earthquake, they collected millions and millions and millions of dollars because of their capacity to put… oh right now, tsunami commercials are still running on television, from international non-profit agencies.
“75 cents can save a child” sort of stuff. It might save the non-profit in question, but beyond that I have no idea what it would do.
The audit report of those twelve agencies, which functioned after the Gujarat earthquake shows that they did not succeed in spending more than 20 to 25% of the money they collected, but effectively blocked those resources from hundreds of smaller local organizations that would have been infinitely more effective.
Second, much of the money they did spend, the 20% was spent on building specially constructed, heat controlled, temperature controlled tents for the activists who came in, while the victims of the Gujarat earthquake froze in the Gujarat winter.
And that was one of the reasons they were not allowed in again and I’m very glad that they weren’t allowed in.
This is still not to deny the generosity of millions of individuals, not to deny the extraordinary coverage of the media of the tsunami.
However, in the same period, if you take the district which was the worst affected by the tsunami in India, its a district called Nagapattinam, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Over there the tsunami destroyed thirty thousand three hundred houses in one go. That was the worst affected district in the country.
In the same period that the tsunami destroyed 30,300 houses in Nagapattinam, the government of Maharashtra destroyed 84,000 houses in a week or two in the metropolis of Mumbai with bulldozers, police squads and extreme use of force. 84,000 houses, which is 2.5 times the number of homes which were destroyed in Nagapattinam, were destroyed in Mumbai. How much coverage did you see of that?
Right? You didn’t see much of that coverage, right?
By the way, this was one of the most major violation of human rights in recent times. It is a violation of a United Nations Resolution to which India was one of the earliest signatories, the 1993 United Nations Resolution on terming forced evictions as a barbaric and gruesome violation of human rights.
Yet, the demolitions though unprecedented in their cruelty – people were not allowed to take their possessions out of their huts. Hundreds and thousands of kids have lost their school certificates, their college certificates, their birth certificates… those who actually had them. A lot of … the women lost their household utensils. They were not allowed to take these out in the demolitions. Because they wanted to make sure that they didn’t come back.
Having destroyed this, the city’s elites then demanded and have filed a petition that the poor people in these slums be stripped of their voting rights, because they are very scared. The Indian poor have a nasty way of getting back at you through the ballot box.
So they actually filed a petition in the High Court saying that these poor people should be stripped of their voting rights.
How much coverage did you see of all this? How much coverage did you see… in fact, you couldn’t. Because though the newspapers were forced to cover it – it was too big to ignore – many, many stories, very sensitive stories were actually killed in the newsrooms of the major newspapers.
Some of these stories were… how did I see the stories – that’s another story. Some of these stories were interviews with bulldozer drivers who demolished the slums. With the policemen who gave protection to the demolition squads.