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Nineteen Blind Men and a Woman, and the Economy


This isn’t a tale from Panchtantra. Nor is it from Aesop’s Fables. The story I want to share with you – blind men and the Elephant — has originated from India, and comes in various versions from Sufis, Buddhists, Jains and Hindus. Wikipedia tells us of the more famous version through a 19th century poem by John Godfrey Saxe:

It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

They conclude that the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan, or rope, depending upon where they touch.

Moral of the story:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Come to think of it. The leaders the G-20 Group of countries (including a woman Head of State) who met in Washington DC for an emergency meeting to revamp the global financial landscape are in a way no different. Like the blind men, they grappled in bright light for six hours, and yet failed to frame an action plan that could truly stimulate the global economy. How true, as John Godfrey Saxe concludes, these leaders rallied on in utter ignorance and failed to figure out the Elephant.

The Elephant in this case is the blood-sucking international finance. It has thrived all these years on the hungry stomach of starving millions, extracting every available ounce of blood. Untamed and unregulated, it demolished the borders of the nation-state to emerge free – unrestrained by governments, and free of society’s control. In the process, the speculative and mobile financial capital has played havoc with the global economy. The Elephant has been on rampage.

Instead of placing a wreath on the tottering financial system, and acknowledging that the free market system cannot survive without a massive life-saving blood transfusion from the government’s world over and therefore must be given a go bye, the blind leadership has worked out a 16-week roadmap to tackle the global crisis. What appears to be a concerted plan to pave the way "for reforms to help ensure a similar crisis does not happen again," is in reality a recipe for yet another bubble ever ready to burst.

Policies that impoverish workers, promote jobless growth, push developing country farmers out of agriculture, mine natural resources turning the lands barren in the process, allow corporate control over farming, aggressively pushing for one-way trade -from the rich to the developing countries, adding to global warming, and thereby lead the world towards an unforeseen and highly unsustainable ecological crisis, remains at the helm. By providing the bail outs, the international leadership has not only acknowledged but applauded the role played by financial robbers and business pirates.

Isn’t it a sad travesty of truth? If you rob a bank of a few thousand, you are arrested and sent to prison. If you rob the entire banking system, you not only receive a pat but also paid a handsome retirement package. If you are unable to pay your debts to the banks, you are hauled up and both your movable and immovable property confiscated. But if the bank is unable to pay its debts, it is bailed out with catastrophic urgency. If you fail to pay your insurance premium, your policy is terminated. But if the insurance company falters, it is nationalised and the chief executive officer is relieved of his job with a multi-million package.

Boosting standards of credit rating agencies, addressing weaknesses in accounting and disclosure standards, and setting up a risk warning system for banks as spelled out in the 16-week ‘action plan’ is an eyewash. You couldn’t have expected anything better from a blind leadership, which has been merrily facilitating the commodification of Earth’s limited natural resources in the name of trade, and outsourcing your job in the name of competitiveness. It’s all in the name of removing poverty and eradicating hunger. Whether it is free trade or global warming, the entire misdeed is being enacted for the benefit of poor and developing countries. Such benevolence!

Public memory is very short. We have forgotten that the last time Europe came to the rescue of Africa, the continent was colonised. When East India Company came to India to trade, the sub-continent was colonised for 200 years. When the British finally left, the fourth biggest-economy was left pauperised and hungry. In the last 30 years, including the 13 years of World Trade Organsiation (WTO), 105 of the 149 Third World nations have already become food importing countries. After the culmination of the Doha Development Round, my hunch is that the remaining of the Third World countries would turn into food dumps. 

No wonder, the blind leadership is in a tearing hurry. You probably missed this. Just prior to the Washington conclave, Brazil’s Finance Minister Guido Mantega hosted a meeting for the finance ministers and central bank presidents from G-20 countries. And look at what he said: "We have to change the tires of the car with the car moving.  This means in 60 to 90 days we will need the solutions for new financial regulations."  Mantega and his colleagues need to know that changing tires with the car moving is a prerogative of James Bond. You have to be either a 007 or require the imaginative skills of Ian Fleming. 

Much has been said, analysed and written about the present crisis. I am not an economist and therefore do not want to step into an arena where angels fear to tread. I firmly believe that neo-economic thinking is the primary cause for all the misdemeanours, wrecking havoc throughout the globe — in the form of financial crisis, food crisis, energy crisis, climate crisis and the terrorism crisis. If this is the garden path where modern economics has led us to, isn’t it time call it shots? I know it is politically incorrect to stand up against the might of the faulty economic system, but isn’t it time to call a spade a spade? Why wait for the doomsday? 

The question I am often asked is where is the alternative. We ask this because in our myopic economic thinking, where everything is measured in terms of growth and profits, we are never taught to calculate happiness and contentment; never told that food, human genes as well as nature is not a commodity; or in other words have never been taught that it is sustainable ethics that leads to sustainable development. We have been too busy partying, and the hangover is too strong for us to see the silver lining.

Before I talk about the alternatives, let me draw your attention to another sinister design. The financial crisis is now leading us to a terrible food crisis ahead. The increase in food prices accompanied by food riots in 37 countries in the beginning of this year was a mere tip of the iceberg. After destabilising the global economic structure, the financial forces are moving to agriculture. Speculation in agricultural trading is now known to be the major cause behind the food crisis. But what happens when the hedge funds and the bailout packages are used by insurance companies, banks and investment firms to purchase farm lands across the globe?  

Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank are eyeing a takeover of China’s livestock industry. Morgan Stanley has purchased 40,000 hectares in Ukraine. Landkom, the British investment group has also bought 100,000 hectares of land in Ukraine. The two Swedish investing firms, Black Earth Farming and Alpcot-Agro, have purchased 331,000 hectares and 128,000 hectares of farm land in Russia, respectively. Along with these investment firms, the governments too are in a mad race to purchase land in Asia and Africa to grow food to be shipped back home (see my article: Land grab for food security: Corporatising agriculture http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Nov132008/editpage20081112100419.asp).

What happens when the food bubble bursts? Who will bail out the hungry?

Returning back to the TINA factor, there is a very plausible alternative. It lies in the principle of self-reliance that Mahatma Gandhi had all along advocated. It is time to revisit Gandhi, and dig out his vision for a sustainable world, where production by the masses is not replaced by production for the masses, where food security does not mean importing cheaper food, where every hand is provided a job, where growth does not translate into profits but happiness. And finally, where the earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not greed.

Such a world is surely possible. All it requires is you to stand up, throw away the blind covers, and be counted. #

(Devinder Sharma can be reached at hunger55@gmail.com)

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