Thursday, October 12, 2006

P Sainath @ Berkeley

Q. How many hardcore liberals does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. None (a liberal would say: "The rightists and centrists are screwing the world, let'em screw in the bulb too")

Last week, P Sainath spoke at UC Berkeley at a talk event titled "Neoliberal Destructions" (co-talked by Alexander Cockburn, co-editor of the very-left journal Counterpunch). Sainath is a well-known journalist who writes on rural issues, and who shot to fame and into Indian living rooms with his 1996 classic "Everyone Loves A Good Drought". He is the rural affairs director of The Hindu.

The talk was a classic example of how the substance of a talk can be marred by its intent. Apparently, Sainath spends 200+ days in a year out in the field covering villages, and one expected to hear a view far insightful than the juvenile chit-chat of TOI and Hindustan Times. His talk was insightful but was also, unfortunately, much more. The mainstay of his talk was the farmer suicides in Vidarbha, but given the evening's theme of "neoliberal destructions" he made sure that everyone saw the so-called current agricultural crisis in India as a giant corporate-led conspiracy to take over the country.

So what is neoliberal after all, I asked myself? My next-chair neighbor, my very own Bhishmapitamaha, put it this way- "...suppose, in the 1950s, there existed a bell-curve of political affiliations with outliers to the left and right and a populated center. Today, the form of the bell-curve is the same, but the entire bell has slid 30 points to the right". So, today's so-called liberal actually stands where a mild conservative stood a few years back, thus earning the demeaning epithet "neoliberal" from the "real" liberals.

According to Sainath, neoliberalism in India is manifested in the scaling down of government in the social sector, elevation of private enterprise, the shutting-down of manufacturing on a big scale, and displacement of farmers from land to clear the way for corporate agriculture. He proposed rather forcefully that post-liberalisation, India has been following a path of development which has excluded the 600-million or so of rural folks, who have no skills to contribute in the service-heavy growth path. Indeed, he suggested that the recent growth in India is at the expense of India's rural agriculturalists. "What India is facing right now is the worst agrarian crisis since the Green Revolution". One repeated motif in the talk was that of a "ruthlessly engineered" plot against the poor being unfolded supposedly by the neoliberals.

There were parts of his talk I would readily second, for instance, when he spoke of the 'disconnect' that exists between the Indian intelligentsia and the poor. He quoted the Economic Times (?) as saying in a review of the economy - "..the bottom 600 million are a disappointment; they are not buying enough". I find it true from personal experience that there is a whole class of middle-class urbanites in India who are blissfully ignorant and apathetic towards their rural cousins, and then I have also met khadi-wearing development-swearing spawn of Sainaths and Patkars who have equally little idea of what rural India needs or wants.

All that said, I would still give the talk three stars, and certainly attend again if there is another chance. After all, you dont get to see a rural rock star like Sainath, true liberal or otherwise, everyday.

Update: Someone has posted video clips of the talk here

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