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February 7, 1998


Issues '98/Claude Alvares

'India is reverting to the slavery of 500 years ago'

First of all, I do not believe that any issue should be discussed just because an election is round the corner. No issue is significant to the election, because it does not provide a method by which decisions can be taken on these issues.

At the most, every five years (nowadays it can be anytime) when elections come, the political parties mention the issues in their manifestos. But not even the elementary things mentioned in the manifesto are ever implemented. The politicians also know it. That's why they are willing to incorporate anything in the manifesto, like how Bharatiya Janata Party talks about the Muslims, etc in its manifesto.

I don't think any party in the last 50 years has implemented its manifesto as such. Issues are taken up as and when they come. Was the Mandal Commission the subject of any party's manifesto? It suddenly became an issue and everybody jumped upon it.

Frankly speaking, I don't want to contribute anything in terms of what should be the issue before the current election. Issues are presented by the people. They (the political parties) say they agree with it and incorporate it in their manifesto. There is no commitment beyond that.

But if you want to discuss issues in the larger perspective, then I personally feel that the primary task before the country in 1998 is its sovereignty. After 50 years of its independence, we are reverting back to the slavery of 500 years ago.

In 1947, we might have had, at the most, 50 multinationals in the country; today we have over 4,000 MNCs, most of which have come up in the last four years. Take, for example, Dhirubhai Ambani's project at Jamnagar, worth Rs 300 billion. Every bit of it is done by this or that foreign corporation.

Invasion of such corporations is taking charge of every bit of our economy. Technology is brought in under the garb of liberalisation, and at the cost of the ample manpower resources available in India. What is the use of such technology which turns even the employed into the unemployed? And this retrenchment is now affecting their own market, since there are no consumers to buy their products.

When you hand over your production forces to external agents, they become the decision-making authorities. I am particularly disturbed at the plans for the wholesale transfer of the insurance sector, etc. Every literal piece of exclusive sovereignty that we have is being sold out.

Recently, there was a World Trading Organisation ruling against India, saying that we have not carried out changes in the acts to facilitate the Intellectual Property Rights regime. It's not a small thing when external forces ask for changes all across the board, from agriculture to insurance sector.

For the first time, the agenda of Parliament is being dictated by outsiders and not by those 900 million people who are supposed to elect Parliament. In such a situation, where is the point of electing Parliament if outsiders are going to decide everything?

Now they are asking for the full right to invest wherever they want with no intervention from the government. They call it a level-playing field as though we can compete at the level they are. That's absurd. It will be a severe setback for our crucial agenda of agriculture, industry and employment.

Naturally, an activist like me is bound to think that an election is a mere tamasha. Whatever changes are to come, I believe, will be through a street parliament. To be precise, changes come through what happens outside Parliament.

When Parliament passes a law violating human rights, we go to the court or stage a dharna or an agitation. What happened to the Thapar Du Pont's Nylon 6,6 project in Goa? The same Goa assembly which had given the green signal dropped the environmentally polluting project after mass protests.

You are asking me what is the alternative. I don't know. But parliamentary democracy is not a fit institution for India, which had its own institutions for 5,000 long years. It's an imported model, ideal for a small island. It has to be overthrown at some or other stage.

Till such time when something would evolve out of this chaos, our responsibility is to build up the people's power. Such power alone makes this government the "Government of the People" which then respects the wishes of the people. It is far more beneficial than floating your own political party.

Maneka Gandhi was trying it once, by floating a party of environmentalists. She felt she could deliver the goods better as the environment minister rather than the environmental activist. No doubt she passed some good judgements. But they were never carried out by this system.

I am not saying that we cannot have a good parliamentary democracy. Indian democracy is far superior than the kind of democracy that exists in the US or in Japan, where people's struggles are crushed mercilessly. But even our democracy cannot remain active until there is a strong and mobilised public opinion.

Parliament appointed the National Human Rights Commission. However, human rights remained an effective instrument solely because human rights groups kept it alive since the 1970s, raising several relevant issues. But these issues are outside the framework and cannot be the electoral issues.

How do you convert sovereignty, environmental degradation or animal rights into electoral issues, except by incorporating it into their manifestos? For example, the BJP was with us to fight the Nylon 6,6 project. But they did not even pass a resolution because L K Advani is very close to the Thapars.

They have their own agenda. They can be downplayed only through political intervention by the people, outside the framework of electoral process. Politics is not run by the people, but by the MPs and the MLAs, with their own agendas.

Dr Claude Alvares, activist, environmentalist and journalist, is based in Goa. He spoke to Sandesh Prabhudesai.

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