South Asia and Globalisation: Book Review

-Sukla Sen

Globalization and South Asia: Multidimensional Perspectives, edited by Achin Vanaik; Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pages 362, Rs.745.

'Globalisation' is a hotly contested terrain. It evokes a bewildering variety of views and opinions as regards its meaning, implications, prospects and desirability. While the term itself gained currency in the eighties, it became very much a part of the common vocabulary with the path breaking massive protests against globalisation led by a wide spectrum loose coalition - comprising anarchists, socialists, feminists, environmentalists, trade unionists, rights activists fighting for gay-lesbians, homeless, migrants, indigenous peoples and so on and so forth from all over the world, in Seattle on November 30, 1999, when protesters blocked delegates’ entrance to WTO meetings. The protests forced the cancellation of the opening ceremonies and lasted the length of the meeting until December 3. To tackle the protesters the city was put under curfew. The Seattle protests were preceded by a string of similar protests on the preceding June 18 in a number of cities around the world, particularly London and Eugene, Oregon. But Seattle was unmatched in terms of scale, the element of surprise and, most of all, dramatic effect. Consequently it is the Seattle 1999, which brought both ’globalisation’ and ’anti-globalisation’ to the centre stage of popular discourse.

Many analysts have tried to present globalisation, rather bland and decontextualised, as essentially a process of global integration, just not economic but also cultural and political, led by higher and higher levels of international trade and facilitated by the recent upsurge in communication technology - in the process lowering down the political barriers erected by the nation states coming in the way. Claims have been made that globalisation commenced, in fact, centuries back. Seen from this angle, some have traced it to antiquity. A section of the anti-globalisers have also fallen for this line. For many of them, however, Christopher Columbus is the first globaliser.

Any meaningful exploration of ’globalisation’ must, nevertheless, examine it in its relationship with its dialectical opposite ’anti-globalisation’. Otherwise the defining specificities of ’globalisation’, or the current phase of globalisation - if one so pleases, get either missed out or severely understated. Globalisation, for that reason, needs to be viewed also in relationship with the rise and rise of neo-liberalism through the eighties to hegemonic heights and the consequent decline of the welfare states along with the foundational creed - Keynesianism - which had arisen as the grand response to the Great Depression, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact by early nineties and, of course, the emergence of the WTO in the mid-nineties as the tailor made instrument to radically revise/upgrade the rules of the game for its unobstructed onward march. While the radically expanded and expanding operations of the TNCs and hugely augmented volumes of finance capital flowing across national borders constitute two of the fundamental markers of the process, the giant strides made in the recent years in the fields of information technology and communication systems have played a vital role in shaping up the things the way they are. In the specific Indian context, ’globalisation’ remains inextricably intertwined with ’economic reforms’, which made its tentative entry as the acknowledged official creed in the mid-eighties under the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi - the self-proclaimed harbinger of the ’twenty first century’, and picked up inexorable momentum in the early nineties, in the wake of the severe balance of payment crisis, under Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, goaded and monitored by the IMF and World Bank. This symbiotic intimacy is perhaps best captured in the fairly popular acronym, LPG - Liberalisation, Privatisation, Globalisation.

The volume under review is, as it appears, virtually the verbatim reproduction of the proceedings of a four-day symposium, held in 2001, on ’Globalisation and South Asia’ organised by the Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia in collaboration with the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. The first two sessions covered the economics of globalisation, in the case of India, and took the form of panel discussions involving speakers both supportive and critical. The remaining sessions dealt with all other aspects led by one introductory speaker and followed by an open floor discussion. The main speakers were: Arvind Virmani, Arun Kumar, Sanjay Baru, Prabhat Patnaik, Bibek Debroy, Jayati Ghosh, I mukherjee, P Sahadevan, C.P. Chandrasekhar, Abhijit Sen, Praful Bidwai, Mahesh Rangarajan, Mohan Rao, Krishna Kumar, Harish Khare, Ritu Menon, Rajeev Bhargava, Sumit Sarkar, and Achin Vanaik. Closing remarks were delivered by Mushirul Hassan and Father Louis Prakash. Consequently the style is free flowing and conversational. The book is avowedly meant to serve as a basic text for the college and university teachers and students. It is to cater also to the broader readership engaged with the issue. As a sort of affirmation of the informal style, it does not contain any bibliography, references or footnotes. Nor there is any formal and elaborate introduction to the subject itself by the editor.

While India, for very understandable reasons, remains the central focus, the impact of globalisation on other major constituents of South Asia viz. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh have also been dealt with. The most remarkable aspect of the design of the book is that it covers an extremely wide range of topics, just not the economic ones, in order to explore the implications and impacts of globalisation. The array of speakers, representing again a wide range of ideological positions, is, it goes without saying, highly impressive. It is this very impressiveness, however, makes one take note of the absence of Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy.

The first session, with the first four speakers on the panel, went into ’The New Economic Reforms’ in India. It was quite a lively and informative one with intense interactions between the audience and the panellists. Virmani, the first speaker, quite forcefully pitched for ’reforms’ and globalisation based on a brief survey, linked to our real life experiences, of the major failures of India’s economic performance and governance since Independence. His policy prescriptions included downsizing of government, dismantling of PSUs, increased (economic) competition - both internal and external, and, rather interestingly, enactment of a law ensuring right to information to the citizens. He also made out that FDI does not mean only capital; it comes bundled with technology and management practices as well, which casts a positive spell on the whole economy through the process of diffusion. Radically raised level of economic growth focused on productive employment generation, for him, holds the key to salvation. Evidently, hardly anybody would quarrel with the goal of faster economic growth or employment generation - at least publicly. So it is not the goal but the means that remained the bone of contention. Of the other three speakers, Sanjay Baru was generally supportive of his line, while Arun Kumar and Prabhat Patnaik countered. Kumar made a couple of interesting points. He equated commencement of globalisation with the onset of colonisation. He also claimed that the black market transactions constitute a very large part of Indian economy makes it specifically vulnerable to the allurements and pressures of globalisation. In an unregulated, or ’free’, market - where one dollar has one vote, he made out that the marginalized get more marginalized to the advantage of the wealthy and hence powerful. Patnaik pointed out that free flow of finance capital, or more specifically ’hot money’ in the form of speculative capital, is a major characteristic of the globalisation process. And it is the prospect of sudden flight of this capital, huge in quantum, with the attendant prospects of economic collapse make the ’national’ governments, willy-nilly, toe the line dictated by foreign capital. According to Patnaik, if national sovereignty is the major casualty of globalisation, then defence of the nation state has got to emerge as the rallying point for the fight against globalisation. Both Kumar and Patnaik pointed out that pre-Independence India, with virtually no tariff barrier, registered a measly growth rate of about 1.5% per annum. But the array of official statistics, cited during the deliberations, indicating an impressive rise in growth rate, and also reduction in poverty level, since eighties, and more particularly nineties, evidently put them on the back foot. Patnaik, however, tried to extricate himself by expressing his scepticism regarding the official data. While the exchanges that followed were extremely lively and enlightening, what strikes one in the face is that no one for once referred to HDI in the course of assessing the impacts of globalisation and reforms on the Indian economy. Even granting that there will always be a phase gap between an economic measure and its impact translated in terms of HDI, the total silence on this score on all sides remains, however, somewhat baffling.

The opening speaker for the next session dealing specifically with the WTO was Bibek Debroy. He gave a very elaborate and comprehensive presentation on the history and the rather complex functioning of the WTO. He quite lucidly brought out how the WTO was brought into being as the successor to the GATT with a far enlarged domain, and as an institution as against mere agreements, through and as the culmination of the Uruguay Round of negotiations. He made out a strong case that while bullies will remain bullies, a multilateral institution like the WTO is any time much preferable for the weaker players as compared to any bilateral dealings. The other speaker Jayati Ghosh differed on this score. She claimed that the WTO agreements, and for that matter the whole system, are intrinsically loaded against the weaker nations. However, on the question of whether India should walk out there was no clear-cut answer. Ghosh suggested that India should make use of such threats as a bargaining chip. On the issue of South-South cooperation also the two panellists differed. Debroy denied that there was any homogenous South, or for that matter, North. Hence alliances or blocks, within the WTO, have to be issue specific cutting across imagined borders. However, not all were convinced that such transient blocks can effectively serve Indian interests. The overwhelming sentiment remained that in spite of internal heterogeneity the divide between the South and the North is a real one and needs to be properly recognised as such. Jayati Ghosh suggested that further rounds of WTO negotiations, where the underdeveloped nations are by and large hardly any match for the developed ones, must be blocked. The hope of gaining advantage by the weaker countries through renegotiations, as regards agriculture and garments trade in particular, is only a mirage. In response to the question whether the WTO would enhance the prospects for foreign investments, Ghosh pointed out that the total value of remittances in the nineties were three times the total value of all foreign capital inflow put together. No one, however, addressed the question why the developed nations take the initiative when the WTO is preferable to bilateral dealings from the point of view of the weaker nations.

The next four sessions, each led by a single main speaker, dealt with in good details in a broadly similar fashion the cases of India’s four major neighbours - Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While presentations on Nepal and Sri Lanka, by I Mukherjee and P Sahadevan respectively, concentrated almost exclusively on these two countries, with references to India only for the purpose of comparison, both C P Chandrasekhar, on Pakistan, and A Sen, on Bangladesh, straddled the larger canvas of South Asia as a whole and, to an extent, the globe. Chandrasekhar remarked that accumulation of large surpluses, deposited in the international banking system, as an outcome of the oil shocks of 73-74 and 78-80 played a major role in initiating the commencement of globalisation, characterised by large flows of finance capital. He also brought out that the liberalisation-globalisation for these countries was broadly a two-phased process. The first phase commenced in the eighties, with the gradual elimination of quantitative restrictions on imports. It is only during the second phase, in the nineties, the tariff barrier was radically brought down. Sen, in his presentation, also underscored the basic similarities in the globalisation pattern of these countries with significantly raised rates of growth since the eighties in sharp contrast with the rest of the world. However, in the nineties the increments in growth rates over the previous decade were rather small. Pakistan was the sole exception, which suffered very substantial fall in growth rate during the nineties. Sahadevan had earlier pointed out that in Sri Lanka the process had been initiated in the seventies. Notwithstanding these broad similarities, however, all these four countries have their own specificities, which were brought out by the speakers. Sen made a number of interesting points.

He brought out that market liberalisation by and large improved the terms of trade in favour of agriculture. He, the first among all the speakers, talked of HDI. Sen also drew attention to the much larger roles played by the NGOs, aided by international funding organisations, in the economic development of Bangladesh.

In what can be termed as the third section of the book, the rest of the speakers, each eminent in one’s own field, dealt with the impacts of globalisation/liberalisation in the fields of science and technology; environment; health; education; media; feminist publishing; culture; communalism and international relations. The format remained the same. The presentations made by Bidwai, on science and technology, and Rangarajan, on environment, demand special mention for being extremely well informed. And Sarkar, on communalism, and Vanaik, on international relations, stand out for their treatments of certain fundamental issues and concepts. Sarkar points out that there is a strong but extremely complex relationship between communalism and globalisation.

This is by no means a straightforward, simple, linear one despite certain evidences of congruence. He also quite emphatically brought out the retrograde face of nationalism, specifically in the Indian context with reference to the North East and Kashmir. Vanaik claimed that transnationalisation of economic and social relations is an integral element of capitalism itself and thereby capitalist globalisation as well. He also traced the emergence of the modern nation states to very substantive separation between politics, and ideology, and economy as a defining aspect of capitalism as contrasted to all pre-capitalist forms requiring direct coercive intervention by the state for extraction of economic surpluses from the labouring classes. Hence, he claims that transnationalisation and nation states are the two faces of the selfsame capitalism operating on a global scale based on the principle of combined and uneven development. So there is no withering away of the states. If the economic functions of the states have been undermined to an extent then their political/coercive functions have been strengthened to push ahead the globalisation/ liberalisation agenda. He also posited here the quite remarkable thesis of five elements of security, of which international relations is one, and seven fundamental problems, global in nature, confronting the humankind.

It is this third section going beyond the restricted realm of economics and delving deep into the various related fields covering a wide spectrum has added a unique dimension to this volume. Another unique feature is the very valuable contributions made by the participants from the floor. All in all, the book provides a truly multidimensional perspective, exploring various facets from different angles and bringing together both protagonists and antagonists of globalisation and liberalisation of considerable eminence. It cannot but both broaden and deepen our understanding of the processes and impacts of globalisation and, more importantly, propel us towards further exploration with an open and enriched mind. This remarkable volume, however, definitely deserved a more thoroughgoing and rigorous editing.

Despite some passage of time the book, however, remains as relevant and enlightening.

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