October 16,


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Dirty secrets in the
     national interest
Ticketless travel, destination
The real public servants
The office and
     its holder
The beginnings of
     informed citizenship

Ashwin Mahesh

A convenient naivete, or a guilty connivance?

It's autumn in Washington, DC. That time of the year when crowds of people descend on the downtown district, reminding the world that the rhetoric about globalisation doesn't stand up to the evidence. They are a motley bunch -- environmentalists, labour groups, representatives of Third World civil society initiatives, and even some otherwise well-ensconced progressives with fading memories of their Berkeley and Cornell roots. The city puts all its police force on overtime, and recruits a couple of thousand more officers from neighbouring jurisdictions. Employers in the downtown area tell their employees to stay home. Huge barricades cordon off several blocks. Fortress Big Money -- namely, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- is holding its annual meeting of the minds.

There are those who argue that laying the economic ills of the world at the doorstep of these institutions is unfair. Bank and Fund officials are trying their hardest, they insist, to bring transparency, reform and accountability to some very difficult places in poor economic shape. That's not easy, and the process of getting there is fraught with political pitfalls and even short-term economic hardship. It takes courage to make this defense. After all, the 'political pitfalls' include countless protestors outside the doors of power with signs that read 'blood money bought your suit,' or something to that effect, usually in font size 53. The 'short-term hardship,' similarly, refers to the roughly 3 billion humans living on a dollar or two a day since approximately forever.

The thing is, it's quite likely that thousands of the people behind the tinted glass are fairly decent folks, who care honestly about the plight of the world's poor. The trouble is that their professional standing and personal fortune are both tied to the status quo, and for the most part their plaintive assertions of good intent are made to themselves as much as to others. Satinath Sarangi, the well-known Bhopal activist who has led the pursuit of just compensation from Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, once wrote of an encounter with executives from the company, describing them as 'regular guys with normal careers, [who] probably even sleep well each night,' quite unmindful of the ghosts of their corporate conduct.

A little like Becir Onarsal, I imagine. Dr Onarsal is a mild-mannered bank employee, and on the occasion of our meeting, he happened to hold chief responsibility for the design of something known as a Common Effluents Treatment Plant. The CETP is a fairly straightforward idea; you take the horrible stuff that a few chemical plants put out, and pipe them all into a single treatment facility, thereby distributing much of the capital and operational costs of treating effluents among multiple manufacturers. There's the small question of not being able to tell which of the plants is actually putting out poison beyond the permitted levels every so often, but that, he pointed out, was outside his expertise.

It was in the spring last year that I met him. One of his CETP schemes had gone awry in Gujarat's industrial corridor, and something smelling fouler than rotten eggs and looking a little redder than the Chinese flag happened to float into streams neighbouring the treatment plant. The local people had tried getting the industrialists to be more responsible, but hadn't made much headway on that front. Michael Mazgaonkar, who lived around those parts, happened to be visiting Washington, and decided this would be a good opportunity to talk to some of the people funding these plants. Perhaps, he said, they could be made to understand how the lives of ordinary people are destroyed by the poisons in their neighbourhood.

The World Bank can be an intimidating place. As you walk in the door -- and this is especially true if like Michael's or mine, your dress sense is a little short of the attire that typically waltzes in and out -- a stern African face with a badge asks politely if you have any business being there. Resisting the temptation to say that we had mistakenly wandered in, we explained that we were looking to meet people who could explain to us how the Bank is involved in supporting certain economic schemes in western India. Michael is an enthusiastic person, quite wont to say "you see, it's like this. We're from India, and in our neighbourhood, there is this little stream ..." The African face is unimpressed. Do we have an appointment? Certainly not. Then perhaps we would care to stand over there while he asks around.

'Over there' is a behind some very large posters in German talking about the Bank's remarkable work in a forgotten corner of the world. While we wait, the African face has located one Richard Beardmore, who will be happy to see us.

Mr Beardmore has been around, you can see that straightaway. He will be glad to explain to us anything we'd like to know that he can help with. We pull up a few chairs in a meeting area outside his office. There's a bit of an awkward moment while the visitors pull out notebooks and pencils, with Beardmore maintaining a studious silence, but soon we are into the thick of it.

The gist of it is this -- we'd like to look through project reports relating to various schemes in Gujarat that the World Bank is funding, and to figure out if the loans being made (the $400 million following the earthquake, for instance) are really on generous financial terms to promote development. This is an especially difficult time for Gujarat, and we'd like to follow the money trail to be sure that none of it goes elsewhere than intended. This, the good Mr Beardmore hasn't quite anticipated, but he's sure that some document explaining the whyfors and hows should exist. We'd like a copy of the proposals and the terms under which the loans were made, we explain. But here things begin to get a little shaky. Beardmore isn't really the person in the know of these things, he's merely willing to talk to us for a little while, he explains.

Actually, no one could have explained it, it turns out. With a little probing, it becomes clear that there is in fact no loan approved specifically for earthquake relief. The Bank and our good prime minister have merely redirected monies intended for some other projects in India to be diverted to the earthquake relief work instead. And what about the funds that would have gone into those projects? "Not to worry", says Beardmore, "those will be replenished with future loans." Naturally, but at what rates of interest, we ask? Well, the usual rates for such projects. Michael quickly has a question - "wouldn't that mean that even earthquake relief, which is in response to dire need, is being funded through loans at interest rates that would apply to infrastructure projects? Couldn't India get an interest-free loan when a gazillion people are homeless and tens of thousands are dead?"

To cut a long story short, Mr Beardmore has few answers. He reverts to his earlier stand, insisting that there is a project specifically outlining the terms of earthquake relief, but he cannot find it. He could look on his computer, but that isn't where he actually searches. Instead, every time he turns to his file cabinet, he's always looking amid documents that look older than Hammurabi, for a loan document that was allegedly created less than a month back. It's evident he doesn't want us peering over his shoulder at the computer screen, and he's more certain as the conversation proceeds that he really isn't the person we should be talking to. The New Delhi office will have all we need, he insists.

Somewhere near this point, I gave him my business card and told him it was nice talking to him, and I look forward to being able to write about my visit with him. He definitely had to leave at that point, but he gave us his card in return and an assurance of all cooperation should we have any questions in the future.

And then we went to see Dr Onarsal. Since no one had escorted us back out to the front of the building, we looked around the phone book, and located the gentleman and asked if he'd be willing to talk to us for a bit too. We were inside the Bank, yes, and we didn't need his permission to enter; we'd already done that, thank you. Were we activists, he wanted to know. I'm not sure -- we're a little concerned that an odious fluid looking like the innards of a tiger shark was flowing into the taps around Vapi 15,000 miles away. How active do you have to be to be alarmed by something like that? I reminded the good doctor that his professional opinion shouldn't really depend on our professions. Upon which compelling argument our conversation began.

He's quite a scholar, Dr Becir Onarsal, there's no denying that. Polite, willing to explain the science of his work patiently. A common effluents treatment plant, on paper, is the sort of everybody-wins economic idea that one can be rightly proud of, and he identified himself with it immediately. That enthusiasm for his achievement, though, faded in short order, as Michael produced an envelope full of images of 'treated' effluents being released into local streams. Many showed the streams to be various shades of orange and red, much like the setting sun, and frothing in places. It is unimaginable that any person's drinking water could safely contain the muck that was being poured into it by these plants -- 'death-inducing' would be a good way to describe the process of consuming the revolting stuff.

To understand how the uber-planner behaved at this juncture, you have to remember that this is a man clearly proud of what he believes is a significant economic achievement. He simply couldn't believe that the filth in front of him could really be emanating from his plants. His immediate response was to put out a barrage of questions, essentially defensive posers: Were these really taken at the discharge sites? Yes. Did you have permission to be there, doesn't the company have guards to keep people away from the site? Yes, but they're not very watchful, we even have some samples we'd like to send to a laboratory sometime.

When the most ready explanations in his unbelieving mind couldn't explain the facts, Onarsal turned to the most incredulous one he could imagine -- "but you mustn't assume this is bad for people. You know, Coca-Cola is red too, but you can drink that quite safely."

It is possible to feel pity for a person and still laugh at him. He was clearly clutching at straws, but even this wouldn't hold up. The people around these facilities can see for themselves the health effects that coincide with hazardous discharges, their cancers and pains aren't from drinking perfectly potable beverages. The companies don't deny access by independent chemical analysts because they are certain of their own regard for public safety, they know instead that the stuff they spew kills, and that any reasonable investigation of their activity will clearly expose their criminal enterprise. There's a reason why the Gujarat Pollution Control Board regularly holds public hearings far away from the affected communities -- because in those communities the connivance of the authorities in the crimes is well known.

"But why are you telling me all these things?" Onarsal had by now moved from denial to powerlessness. He was at best a faraway economic adviser with a valid engineering idea, and the crooked implementation of it could hardly be laid at his feet. This is par for the course; the Bank's own policy is that its employees must not be corrupt, but cannot take any responsibility for the corruption they know occurs with the use of the Bank's money. Moreover, Onarsal assured us, the CETPs were dead and the Bank was moving away from funding them. Really? The brilliant idea he had taken such pride in only moments before, apparently wasn't.

"We're telling you," said Michael, "because we want you to know that your decisions and actions have impacts on people's lives. The difference that you call colour, they see as the separation between life and death. What you call faulty implementation, they call crime. And the powerlessness that you now profess isn't really credible, because you haven't bothered to check how your schemes actually work. If you had a greater interest in that, than in meeting the chairman of the pollution board who you say is your friend, then you might view these schemes in a different light. I'm telling you because I think that you need to know, and you need to be accountable for what you know, just as the local officials are accountable for their actions."

I don't believe that Becir Onarsal imagined in his wildest dreams that an actual Gujarati would show up in his office, complaining of negligence and hinting of complicity in the deliberate disregard for the health of the poor. He just lost it, and in one splendid moment of eventual honesty, the unrestrained dissonance of his own mind came spilling out.

"You fellows are always whining, and blaming the World Bank for every little thing that is wrong with your country. You elect a bunch of crooks to your government offices, your oversight mechanisms are all clearly full of loopholes and corruption, and when those things create chaos in India, you come begging to us to stop funding these projects, as though all the corruption is the fault of the World Bank. We are not your saviours, that you can come and ask to rescue you from all your troubles."

In hindsight, I believe "begging" and "saviour" were terrible words to have chosen. Michael fairly leaped out of his chair and bellowed at the scientist, and when he was done, one could be forgiven for thinking that the cowering Onarsal had shrunk in size about 50 per cent. He was exposed as either naively unbelieving and unsuspecting of the reality of the operations he took such pride in, or fairly red-handedly caught at being complicit in them. He took the only recourse left to him. He insisted that the meeting was over, and escorted us out, taking the precaution -- which Beardmore did not -- of ensuring that we were beyond the security perimeter before he bade us farewell. He stomped away, muttering to himself.

As another round of protests against the policies of the multilateral lending agencies and their global trading rules winds down, I am reminded of a crucial distinction. From behind institutional facades, these organisations exert tremendous political and economic force, the consequences of which are felt in the far corners of the planet. But when this veneer is removed, and the individuals who administer the policies are called to account for them, the insincerity of their defence is galling. The unwillingness to confront that truth is best understood as denial. Thousands of 'honest-to-goodness' folks have spent much of their lives of 'accomplishment' certain that they would never be party to such depravity, and assuring themselves that if ever the knowledge of it came to them, they would stand up against it.

But they do know. They cannot profess on the one hand the great intellect to solve complex socio-economic problems, and on the other hand deny any awareness that the rich-poor divide is perpetuated by the rules of their game. They cannot proclaim loudly the efficiency of competitive markets, and fail to notice that thousands of farmers have ended their lives precisely because the markets they have erected aren't really competitive. Ultimately, the great lie of the neo-classical economists is that the prestige with which they see their personal success in the world of businessmen, trade negotiators, and others of the profession and class, isn't real. Their economic idea, it appears, is so strong it needs police protection! And the pride of their learning is quickly defeated by one of two truths -- either an obvious ineptitude in applying their scholarship, or the selective application of it to favour the already privileged.

Each protest is a reminder of this judgement.

Ashwin Mahesh

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