The real ‘engines’ of growth

One notices a funny dichotomy when one flits through publications catered toward different sections of society, like India Together and The Times of India (if one can actually call it a ‘news’ paper anymore). One set seems to tell us that everything is going to hell and the other seems to paint an extremely optimistic picture of the whole thing we call liberalisation. Since people usually buy that which they relate to, it follows that both pictures are true: the excruciating poverty and the sleek new capitalism.

Society can never be comprised of watertight compartments. It is more likely to contain personalities who occupy the continuum between the two extremes. Take Bangalore, my favorite example. The slums are a picture of scarcity whereas the IT SEZs are a picture of excess. It is highly unlikely that the lower strata of society will gladly give their scarce resources to a population that already has too much. Someone must be doing it, for a price, of course.

Usually, the technological artifacts of an age represent its zeitgeist. The F-1 car is to me one such symbol of this era. It has all the striking features of our society:

  • High performance
  • Very high levels of organization (in terms of car design)
  • High dependence of the whole on every single part (heard somewhere that the car won’t even start if all components are not working properly)
  • Requirement of relatively ideal conditions (very wide, flat tracks, almost fricitionless profile, specialised tyres, etc ., )

The current financial crisis can be compared to a car crash due to failure to adhere to ideal conditions. Something fails, which brings down everything else. If you read any material on supply-chain management, you’ll understand what I mean. This is why Chinese melamine finds its way to the breakfast tables of half the globe. In comparison, the society of a century ago was like a Kinetic Luna – not very complicated, low performance (in terms of economic output), easily maintained by the owner herself (assuming minimal savviness), and useful in potholed roads.

With such stringent requirements, most modern corporates are willing to pay a high price to ensure that they get the resources they need. It is only when ideal conditions are created will it perform at desired levels. The march of the corporation in India has unfortunately turned into a zero sum game which is also unsustainable, quite like running a Ferrari in Chickpet. You have to break things down to give it room, and make sure nothing comes up later. For the Ferrari owner, life is good, but not for the person whose house was pulled down.

Thus, it is not quite the IT czars who are spearheading ‘growth’ in India or anywhere else, but the people who break things to make way for them. In an era of ever rising populations and decreasing resources, the industrial society requires resource allocation which is quite disproportionate to the number of people it represents.

A few examples are in order. Take the case of land in and around Bangalore. Scare resource, no doubt. But if one saw the number of IT parks coming up before this financial screw-up, one could easily think otherwise. This article (watch the embedded video!) describes the land mafia in Bangalore and the important players, including Muthappa Rai, who was interviewed for the article. It is an open secret that if you need 10 acres for building swanky townships or glass-enclosed IT greenhouses, you go to the mafia, not the government. Pratically everyone in Bangalore, especially in extension areas, lives on illegally occupied land, which later the BBMP is forced to regularise. Those who lose out on land are farmers and who lose out jobs are unskilled locals (due to huge migration), and hence arise organisations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike which are kept in check by the police. The mafia to disenfranchise, and the police to keep it that way. Neat idea.

Water is probably hitting Bangalore more than any other resource, and the trenches are occupied by the private water tanker operators. Like the article shows, a single operator may deliver 50 – 60 loads of water a day, each of roughly 20,000 liter capacity. This adds up to mind-boggling numbers, and this was more than a year ago. I have myself seen Leela Palace getting atleast 10 – 15 tankers of water at 5 AM in the morning. And the website says:

Ensconced in 9 acres of tranquility that includes an azure lagoon, The Leela Palace mirrors the lushness of the Garden City. Harking back to the royal heritage of the Vijaynagar Dynasty, our hotel earns it name by showcasing gold leaf domes, ornate ceiling and grand arches.

They have a freaking lagoon!! This issue is becoming global. This set of pictures shows what can be, and is not very reassuring. Also, years of industrial farming is taking a toll on land and water, with desertification of erstwhile farmlands becoming a major issue. Farmland drops, food is scarce, starvation and conflict are inevitable.

The recent flare-up in Maharastra has also to do with appropriation of jobs (which are getting scarce nowadays!) by Biharis in the Railways. The fact that railway ministers for the past 12 years have been from Bihar may have something to do with this. The actions of the MNS may not be justified, but the resentment unfortunately is.

Another gory example is that of coltan, used extensively for manufacture of computer chips. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of it is available in Congo, which has a war going on to secure these resources, destroying everything in its path. Like this article says:

More profitable than gold or diamonds, and more easy to extract, is the rare substance, colombo tantalite, known as coltan, an essential ingredient for microchips and cell phones. Found almost exclusively in eastern Congo, it can bring in a whopping $400 per kilo in the international market, giving rebel factions and neighboring governments a financial reason to keep the war going indefinitely. Only when the Congolese conflict caused a temporary suspension of coltan mining did the western world feel the reverberations of a war it had all but forgotten: Sony was forced to delay the launch of its popular Play Station 2.

My My. The poor rich kids must have found it intolerable without their PS-2s.

The unfortunate reality is that we have designed a system where comfort and excellence is almost always at the expense of the powerless and weak. There are very few daily activities that we can perform without directly or indirectly grabbing something from someone else. It of course comes packaged in hygenic tetra-paks, but the people driving our ‘development’ be it the State, the crime lords or those who exploit nature are getting their hands dirty enough for all of us. The world is going nuts, as it has been from a long time, but never before has the resource crunch affected us like now. Blame the population problem or WalMart, it is high time we learn to live within our (material, not financial) means.

Yup, word limit reached.

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3 thoughts on “The real ‘engines’ of growth”

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