excerpts from the book

Power Politics

by Arundhati Roy

South End Press, 2001


... in the midst of putative peace, you could, like me, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable.

What we need to search for and find, what we need to hone and perfect into a magnificent, shining thing, is a new kind of politics. Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance. The politics of opposition. The politics of forcing accountability. The politics of slowing things down. The politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction. In the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. It's India's best export.

... in far away Holland, the World Water Forum was convened. Four thousand five hundred bankers, businessmen, government ministers, policy writers, engineers, economists-and, in order to pretend that the "other side" was also represented, a handful of activists, indigenous dance troupes, impoverished street theater groups, and half a dozen young girls dressed as inflatable silver faucets-gathered at The Hague to discuss the future of the world's water. Every speech was generously peppered with phrases like "women's empowerment," "people's participation," and "deepening democracy." Yet it turned out that the whole purpose of the forum was to press for the privatization of the world's water.

There was pious talk of having access to drinking water declared a Basic Human Right. How would this be implemented, you might ask. Simple. By putting a market value on water. By selling it at its "true price." (It's common knowledge that water is becoming a scarce resource. One billion people in the world have no access to safe drinking water.) The "market" decrees that the scarcer something is, the more expensive it becomes. But there is a difference between valuing water and putting a market value on water. No one values water more than a village woman who has to walk miles to fetch it. No one values it less than urban folk who pay for it to flow endlessly at the turn of a tap.

So the talk of connecting human rights to a "true price" was more than a little baffling. At first I didn't quite get their drift. Did they believe in human rights for the rich, that only the rich are human, or that all humans are rich? But I see it now. A shiny, climate-controlled human rights supermarket with a clearance sale on Christmas Day.

One marrowy American panelist put it rather nicely: "God gave us the rivers," he drawled, "but he didn't put in the delivery systems. That's why we need private enterprise." No doubt with a little Structural Adjustment to the rest of the things God gave us, we could all live in a simpler world. (If all the seas were one sea, what a big sea it would be . . . Evian could own the water, Rand the earth, Enron the air. Old Rumpelstiltskin could be the handsomely paid supreme CEO.)

When all the rivers and valleys and forests and hills of the world have been priced, packaged, bar-coded, and stacked in the local supermarket, when all the hay and coal and earth and wood and water have been turned to gold, what then shall we do with all the gold? Make nuclear bombs to obliterate what's left of the ravaged landscapes and the notional nations in our ruined world?

... Let's begin at the beginning. What does privatization really mean? Essentially, it is the transfer of productive public assets from the state to private companies. Productive assets include natural resources. Earth, forest, water, air. These are assets that the state holds in trust for the people it represents. In a country like India, seventy percent of the population lives in rural areas. That's seven hundred million people. Their lives depend directly on access to natural resources. To snatch these away and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history.

Essentially, privatization is a mutually profitable business contract between the private (preferably foreign) company or financial institution and the ruling elite of the third world.

... we don't want to be like good middle-class Germans in the 1 930s, who drove their children to piano classes and never noticed the concentration camps springing up around them-or do we?

In a Call Center College, hundreds of young English-speaking Indians are being groomed to staff the backroom operations of giant transnational companies. They are trained to answer telephone queries from the United States and the United Kingdom (on subjects ranging from a credit card inquiry to advice about a malfunctioning washing machine or the availability of cinema tickets). On no account must the caller know that his or her inquiry is being attended to by an Indian sitting at a desk on the outskirts of Delhi.

The Call Center Colleges train their students to speak in American and British accents. They have to read foreign papers so they can chitchat about the news or the weather. On duty they have to change their given names. Sushma becomes Susie, Govind becomes Jerry, Advani becomes Andy. (Hi! I'm Andy. Gee, hot day, innit? Shoot, how can I help ya?) Actually it's worse: Sushma becomes Mary. Govind becomes David. Perhaps Advani becomes Ulysses.

Call center workers are paid one-tenth of the salaries of their counterparts abroad. From all accounts, call centers are billed to become a multibillion-dollar industry.

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