The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Continue reading “The Price of Social Distancing”

The Best Years of My Life

Best Years of My Life
Press release
German Foreign Office and Neue Galerie Berlin will present Shahidul Alam at Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum and at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Berlin.

With the book publication and the exhibition “The best years of my life. Bangladeshi Migrants in Malaysia” the international well-known photographer and activist Shahidul Alam will be present on Monday, June 19, 2017 through the Neue Galerie Berlin and with the support of the German Foreign Office on the Global Media Forum of the Deutsche Welle. After the end of the forum in Bonn, the exhibition will be on display at the German Foreign Office in Berlin from Thursday, June 23, 2017, and will be part of the Global Forum on Migration and Development from 28 to 30 June. The Finissage will be published on 30 June 2017 at the Federal Foreign Office with a greeting from the State Secretary Dr. Markus Ederer within the framework of the GFMD. The artist will be present in Bonn and Berlin and will be available for questions and interviews. Further information on the exhibition and the artist in the appendix.

As an additional digital component, the Neue Galerie Berlin, together with the technology partner snap2live, presents the newly developed image recognition app “Neue Galerie Berlin”. All pictures of the Alam exhibition can be scanned with the app (tentatively available on Android). Behind the pictures

About
In 2016 Tanja von Unger founded the Neue Galerie Berlin (www.neuegalerieberlin.de).
To provide a relevant platform beyond photography the businessmodel
also collaborates with publishing groups and institutions and is known for its groundbreaking presentation of photographers and their works at economic conferences and events such as the Economic Summit of the Su?ddeutsche Zeitung, Falling Walls Conference, Rheingauer Economic Forum, Global Solutions G 20 Conference of the Dieter von Holtzbrinck publishers.

Snap2Life create apps for companies in the media, publishing, automotive, business, sports and advertising sectors. Most of these apps are equipped with our innovative image recognition functionality, which we also provide as an API for integration into other apps. In a fraction of seconds we connect the offline world with any kind of relevant content from the online world.

The Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum (GMF) is the Place Made for Minds, where decision makers and influencers from all over the world come together. It’s the global platform put on by Deutsche Welle and its partners and the place where you can connect and strengthen relations with over 2,000 inspiring representatives from the fields of journalism, digital media, politics, culture, business, development, academia and civil society. The conference provides a unique opportunity to network, get inspired and collaborate using a wide variety of state-of-the-art formats.
http://www.dw.com/en/global-media-forum/global-media-forum/s-101219
 
“Towards a Global Social Contract on Migration and Development”
Tenth Global Forum on Migration and Development Summit 28 to 30 June 2017, Berlin
Germany and Morocco have assumed the co-chairmanship of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) from 1 January 2017 until 31 December 2018. During this two-year period, the focus will be on the contribution of the GFMD to the United Nation’s Global Compact on Migration. The Compact is intended to constitute a strong signal of the international community for an enhanced global migration policy, to be adopted by the community of states in 2018.
https://gfmd.org

What Joy Bangla means today

Originally published in New Age

By Shahidul Alam

Joy Bangla in those days had not been commandeered by any political party. It was a slogan we all used. Some took it more to heart than others. I was on a rickshaw heading towards mejo chachi’s house, (she is mother of my footballer cousin Kazi Salahuddin, better known by his nickname Turjo). Seeing a friend on the road I shouted out Joy Bangla. Joy Bangla, he waved back. At mejo chachi’s the rickshawala refused to take my fare. “Joy Bangla bolsen na. apnar thon bhara loi kemne” (You said Joy Bangla. How can I take fare from you?). Despite my insistence he wouldn’t budge. The rallying cry belonged to us all. He saw me as a fellow warrior.

On the 16th December, I had gone into a burning military convoy opposite Sakura hotel and took a partially charred Browning light machine gun as a trophy. Almost at the same site where I had seen, nine months ago, people being gunned down as they ran from the flames on the night of the 25th March. They lived in the slums near the Holiday office. Their brutal death part of a statistical count we still argue about.

Years later, I tried to put together a visual chronicle of the war. Collecting photographs from great photographers from far away lands and many local ones who had witnessed our pain, and shared our victory. There were moments of great bravery and greater sacrifice. There were moments of immense pain. The weight of great loss. Rashid Talukder’s image of the dismembered head in Rayerbazar was one of the most striking. Kishor Parekh?s sculpted frames showing, dignity, honour, elation and loss. Raghu Rai?s monumental images of seas of people seeking shelter. Captain Beg’s rare photographs of the mukti bahini during battle. Mohammad Shafi?s striking image of women smuggling grenades in half-submerged baskets. Aftab Ahmed’s image of the final surrender, stoic and significant.

A woman emerges out of hiding for the first time, carrying a rifle and accompanied by her children. The family were hiding from Pakistani troops during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971. Photo: Penny Tweedie/Chobi Mela archives/Drik

The image that stood out from all the others however, was by Penny Tweedie. Freelancing and without an assignment, Penny had neither the luxury of a client?s budget, nor the assurance of a publishing slot. She did the best she could, getting lifts from fellow photographers, flitting between areas of conflict and stress, she stayed close to ordinary people. People like my rickshawala friend, or the people I saw dying on the night of the 25th March. People who resisted, people who fled, people who sheltered others. People who fed people when they had little food themselves. The image of a woman, carrying a gun walking through a paddy field, with children in tow, was for me the image that encapsulated the war. These were ordinary people who had war thrust upon them. They made do, as best as they could. Bearing their pain with dignity. Fighting with no hope for return. Unlike me, they were not trophy hunters. I doubt if that woman ever made it to a muktijoddha list. I have no way of knowing if she, or her children made it through the war alive. They gave us this nation where we had all hoped we would be free. Continue reading “What Joy Bangla means today”

The Ruin of Indonesian Society

Indonesia: 50 Years After the Coup and the CIA Sponsored Terrorist Massacre. The Ruin of Indonesian Society

indonesia

Last year, I stopped travelling to Indonesia. I simply did… I just could not bear being there, anymore. It was making me unwell. I felt psychologically and physically sick.

Indonesia has matured into perhaps the most corrupt country on Earth, and possibly into the most indoctrinated and compassionless place anywhere under the sun. Here, even the victims were not aware of their own conditions anymore. The victims felt shame, while the mass murderers were proudly bragging about all those horrendous killings and rapes they had committed. Genocidal cadres are all over the government.

Continue reading “The Ruin of Indonesian Society”

Humanitarian to a nation

Originally published in Saudi Aramco World

Humanitarian to a Nation, Written by Richard Covington, Photographed by Shahidul Alam / DRIK

Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi at the Edhi Centre in Clifton, Karachi.
Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi at the Edhi Centre in Clifton, Karachi.

In the cool interior of a mental ward in Karachi, a short, powerfully built man with a flowing snow-white beard and penetrating dark-brown eyes is standing at the bedside of a distraught young woman. She has covered her head with a sheet and is pleading for news of the two children her husband took from her.

“I know you are suffering terribly, but this is no way to bring back your children,” says the man with stern compassion. “You have a college degree. You can do many things to help the other patients.”

More photos on flickr: Continue reading “Humanitarian to a nation”

Raise Shit

downtown eastside poem of resistance
by Bud Osbornosborn

“…the myth of the frontier is an invention that rationalizes the violence of gentrification and displacement”
neil smith 1996

“these pioneers in the gradual gentrification of the downtown eastside say their hopes for a middle-class lifestyle are undermined by the tenderloin scene down the street”
doug ward 1997

“prominent amid the aspects of this story which have caught the imagination are the massacres of innocent peoples, the atrocities committed against them and, among other horrific excesses, the ways in which towns, provinces, and whole kingdoms have been entirely cleared of their native inhabitants”
bartolome de la casas 1542

there is a planetary resistance
against consequences of globalization
against poor people being driven from land they have occupied
in common
and in community
for many years

and while resistance to and rapidity of global gentrification
differs according to specific local conditions
we in the downtown eastside
in the poorest and most disabled and ill community in Canada
are part of the resistance
which includes
the zapatistas in chiapas mexico
the ogoni tribe in nigeria
and the resistance efforts on behalf of and with
the lavalas in Haiti
the minjung in korea
the dalits in india
the zabaleen in Egypt
the johatsu in japan
and these are names for
the floor
the abandoned
the outcasts
the garbage people
the homeless poor
and marginalized people

and gentrification has become a central characteristic
of what neil smith perceives as
“a revengeful and reactionary viciousness
against various populations accused of ‘stealing’ the city
from the white upper classes”
and this viciousness and violence
brought to the downtown eastside
by friendly predators
such as builders planners architects landlords bankers and politicians
is like violence brought to our community
by other predators
by johns and oblivion seekers
by sensationalizing journalists
by arrogant evangelizing Christians
predators like
developers and real estate agents
who remind of no one so much
as gilbert Jordan
the serial killer
who came down here repeatedly
and seduced bribed and bullied
10 native women
into drinking alcohol until they were dead
and one woman
revived after a night with jordan
though pronounced dead on arrival
at st pauls hospital
described jordan as
“a real decent-looking person
very mild-mannered
a real gentleman
he looked like a school teacher
white shirt and tie
I trusted him”

and in our situation in the downtown eastside
the single weapon we wield
like the weapon native indian prophets
like the weapon ancient hebrew prophets
used in situations of vicious displacement
and threatened destruction of their communities
was the word
words against the power
of money and law and politics and media
words against a global economic system

the word ‘hebrew’ originally designated not a racial class
but a social class
of despised drifters and outcasts
who existed on the margins of middle eastern cultures
and those advocates
those ancient hebrew prophets said
“the wealthy move the boundaries
and the poor have to keep out of the way
the poor spend the night naked, lacking clothes
with no covering against the cold
the child of the poor is exacted as security
from the city comes the groan of the dying
and the gasp of the wounded crying for help
damn those who destroy the huts of the poor
plundering their homes instead of building them up
those who tear the skin from off our people
who grind the faces of the poor
who join house to house
who add field to field
until there is room for no one but them
those who turn aside the way of the afflicted
who trample upon the oppressed”

and the native prophets of the americas who said
“when these times arrive
we will leave our homes like dying deer
the land will be sold and the people will be moved
and many things that we used to have in this land
will be taken from us
we have been made to drink
of the bitter cup of humiliation
they have taken away our lands
until we find ourselves fugitives vagrants and strangers
in our own community
our existence as a distinct community
seems to be drawing to a close
our position may be compared
to a solitary tree in an open space
where all the forest trees around have been prostrated
by a furious tornado”

we have become a community of prophets in the downtown eastside
rebuking the system
and speaking hope and possibility into situations
of apparent impossibility

a first nations’ man recently told me
he had come to the downtown eastside to die
he heard the propaganda that this is only a place of death disease and despair
and since his life had become a hopeless misery
he came here specifically to die
but he said
since living in the downtown eastside
what with the people he has met
and the groups he has found
he now wants very much to live

and his words go directly
to the heart of what makes for real community
a new life out of apparent death
and this is what we speak and live
with our words our weapons

our words
like bolts of lightning in a dark night
lighting our way
our words
like tears like rain like cries like hail from our hearts
feeling with each other in our suffering for each other
our words
angry as thunder exploding in the ears of those
who would ignore or dismiss or inflict upon us
what they in their ignorance think is best for us
our words defiant as streetkids in a cop’s face
our words
brilliant and beautiful as the rainbow I saw
spanning our streets
our words
of resistance and comfort and commitment
like mountains
our words
prophetic on behalf of the hard-pressed poor

our words
buttons tshirts fliers inserts newsletters pamphlets
posters spraypaint slogans stickers placards speeches
interviews essays poetry songs letters chalks paints
graffiti

for as one prophet said
“when all is dark the murderer leaves his bed
to kill the poor and oppressed”

our words
to block the murderers’ paths

our words spoken by
jeff and muggs and eldon and kathleen and frank and maggie and
carl and lori and duncan and margaret and mark and sonny and ken
and fred and sheila and liz and tora and terri and ian and chris and
bob and leigh and jen and shawn and darren and sarah and
irene and cathy and ann and lorelie and nick and linda and lorraine
and john and Joanne and judy and allison and sharon and deb and
marg and dan and jean and don and libby and carol and lou and dayle
and mo and barb and ellen and sandy and torn and luke and gary and
travis and bruce and paul and deidre and jim and so many others

our words and our presence create
a strange and profound unity
outraged at each other
disappointing each other
misinterpreting each other
reacting against each other
resenting each other
unhealed wounds dividing us
when to be about unity
is to be caught in a crossfire
of conflicting ambitions understandings and perspectives

still our words and presence create
a strange and profound and strong unity
as in memory of
the long hard nerve-wracking battles we’ve fought
for the carnegie centre
against the casino
for crab park
against brad holme
for zero displacement by-laws
against hotel evictions
for poor people living in woodwards
against condominium monstrosities
and for our very name
the downtown eastside
removed from city maps
the most stable community and neighbourhood in Vancouver
suddenly disappeared
but recovered through struggle
our name reclaimed
but the meetings
the pressure

the downtown eastside community
besieged and beleaguered
strung-out and dissipated
running on constant low grade burn-out fever
meetings and meetings and meetings
a dozen fronts to fight at the same time
deal with one and a dozen more appear
another dehumanizing media story
or new condo threat
a hundred needs crying out all at once
a hundred individuals with emergencies crying for a response
sirens and sirens and sirens
construction noise
automobile mayhem
a disabled population
a poor and ill population
criminalized
up against globalization
pressure cooker emotional atmosphere
excruciating questions and dilemmas
so much happens so fast

how much compromise?
how to organize?
where to fight?
more sirens and screams and break-ins
welfare cuts
more murders and suicides
more bodies on the sidewalks and in the alloys and parks
space and places for poor people shrinking
and the ambiguities of advocacy
the rumours
the well-founded paranoias
the political manipulations
exploitations confusions deliberate obfuscations
and seductions of the gentrification system
the backroom deals somewhere else
in office towers and government offices
meetings and more meetings
and yet
beneath the ostensible reason
for attending another goddamned meeting
is that which truly holds us together
holds and has held every real community together

love

love
not as passive abstraction or a commodity privatized
but love
as fiery personal and collective social justice passion
love as in our public celebrations
love as in our public grieving
love going past fatigue again
love taking risks in the face of uncertainty
love as stubbornness sticking to community principles
love as willingness to go one more length
to make one more leaflet
love sitting down together one more time
love saying hello to hate and fear and goodbye
love as resistance tolerance and acceptance
love
for this poor beloved community reeling from global upheavals
love
taking on the consequences of a system producing
more wounded
more damaged
more excluded
more refugees
more unemployed and never-to-be-employed
and love’s
immense capacity to care
and love as courage

like the other day near main and hastings
an old white man headed across hastings
in the middle of the block
traffic roared and blasted in both directions
the old man was using a cane and moving very slowly
his eyes fixed somewhere beyond
it sure looked like he’d never make it
but would become
another vehicular maiming or death down here
and then a native fellow
waiting at the bus stop
like a matador dodging furious bulls
dodged into the traffic
and stopped it
using his body as a shield
and escorted the old white man
safely to the curb

words and courage and love and hope and unity
if only we had
the means for self-determination
instead

“the real estate cowboys … also enlisted the cavalry of city government for
… reclaiming the land and quelling the natives, in its housing policy,
drug crackdowns, and especially in its parks strategy, the city devoted
its efforts not toward providing basic services and living opportunities
for existing residents but toward routing many of the locals and
subsidizing opportunities for real estate development”
wrote neil smith about the lower east side of new york

sounds familiar literal
like the day the police showed-up on horseback
to patrol the 100 block of east hastings
horses on the sidewalk
where some of the most ill and suffering human beings
most drugged and drunk and staggering human beings
slipped and stumbled through the huge horse turds
left laying on the sidewalk

I remember attending a kind of gentrification summit
called by a vancouver city planner
to examine the city’s victory square redevelopment plan
david ley jeff sommers nick blomley and chris olds
reached a similar conclusion
the plan does nothing to prevent
displacement and gentrification
but when recently reminded of this verdict
the city planner still pushing his plan said
“I don’t care if god and david ley …”

and that’s just it
the necessity for heeding
the prophetic blast and rallying cry
delivered by larry campbell
now the provincial coroner
in the carnegie centre last summer

“raise shit’ he said

raise shit against the kind of “urban cleansing”
gentrification unleashes
it’s a war
against the poorest of the poor
1000 overdose deaths in the downtown eastside in 4 years
highest rate and number of suicides in vancouver
lowest life expectancy for both men and women
fatal epidemics of aids and hepatitis c
and lack of humane housing
identified as a major factor
in all this violence against us

raise shit
when a friend of mine a gay native man tells me
“I’ll try anything to get a decent home
I’m gonna become a mental case
I’ll even go into an institution
if it’ll help me get a decent home”

raise shit
when both young people and hardcore addicts either deliberately infect
themselves with h.i.v. or take no precautions to prevent infection so that
they have a better chance at obtaining housing income health care and
meals

raise shit
when a city cop in a newspaper column says “the locals were at their best
fighting and howling” and calls drug addicts
“vampires”

raise shit
when an extremely influential north american
theoretician of displacement george kelling
is brought to vancouver by the business people and the police
to define and divide our community against itself
against panhandlers and prostitutes

raise shit
when a city planner involved with the convention centre scam says “the
voters of vancouver can easily live with 20 to 25 000 homeless people and
not even notice it”

and when I think of raising shit
I think of this basketball team I once played on
composed of middle-aged beat-up alcoholics and addicts
from the streets
who’d been sober for awhile
and we entered a city recreational league
against teams that were
younger stronger faster healthier and more skilled
and though we lost most games by a large margin
we determined that
no matter what the score
each hotshot team we played would know

by their fatigue and sweat and bruises
that they had been in a game
that they were up against an opponent
we knew we couldn’t out jump or outrun those teams
but we sure could raise shit
better than they could
and amazingly we actually won a few games

to raise shit is to actively resist
and we resist with our presence
with our words
with our love
with our courage

we resist
person by person
square foot by square foot
room by room
building by building
block by block

we resist
because we are a community
of prophets of activists of advocates
of volunteers and agency workers
and we you and I us
are all that stands between
the unique vulnerable troubled life-giving and death-attacked
community of the downtown eastside
we are all that stands between our vast community of thousands
and those who would
gentrify and displace and replace it
replace with greed
the singular leadership we have here
where it is said we lack
a single dynamic individual leader
but we have
the most powerful leader there is
the most effective leader we can have
in this grave situation
our community
our community itself
has emerged as our leader
the downtown eastside community itself
leads us
and it is to our credit that this is so
for it is from our
prophetic courageous conflictual and loving unity
that our community
raises shit
and resists

And Yet She Smiles

And yet she smiles. Gang raped numerous times as a child. Forced into pick pocketing. Caned till she was unconscious. Sold to a madame. Hajera Begum’s life has little that would give cause to smile. Yet she smiles. She cries too. Not because of the gang rapes, or the beating, or the many years she lives in the streets as a rag picker, but when she remembers that a man who worked in an NGO, refused to work in her team because she was a sex worker.

It was that moment that Hajera decided she would make sure it was different for others like her. She had earlier set up a self-help group for sex workers, but eventually, with the help of some university students and other friends and a generous journalist, set up an orphanage for abandoned kids. They are mostly children of sex workers. Some are children of drug addicts. A few are children of parents who simply couldn’t afford to keep them. Hajera and her thirty children live in five small rooms near Adabor Market 16, on the edge of Dhaka. Run entirely by volunteers, she has only one paid staff, the cook. “What will I do with a salary” she says. We share what food we have. I have a roof over my head and I have my children.
Remarkably, Hajera is not bitter. While she remembers every detail of her nightmarish life, she also remembers the friends who believed in her, and helped her set up the orphanage. Instead of remembering that she is incapable of bearing children because of brutal unwanted sex, she basks in the warmth of the 30 children who now call her mother.

Hajera and peer sex workers at Crescent Lake. Dhaka Hajera (right) and her friends by Crescent Lake in the parliament grounds. 1996. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World[/caption] Continue reading “And Yet She Smiles”

Not Just Another Brick In The Geopolitical Wall

By leveraging its ties with non-western powers, BRICS can check US hegemony

A different worldview?BRICS leaders profess a shared vision of inclusive global growth and the rapid socio-economic transformation of their own nations. Photo: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

Building blocks The BRICS bank will give priority to loans for developing countries to finance infrastructure projects and environmentally sustainable development. Photo: Media Club South Africa

Leaders of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) held their sixth annual meeting on 15-16 July in Fortaleza, Brazil. The major deliverable from the summit was economic in form and content, but its significance is primarily geopolitical. From a turn of phrase by Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs in 2001, a grouping was born in 2009. It is not the product of diplomatic negotiations based on shared political values or common economic interests. They make up 40 percent of world population, 20 percent of world GDP, 15 percent of world trade and account for two-thirds of world growth. They enjoy the competitive edge in different areas from abundant natural resources to strengths in manufacturing, it and biotechnology.

By 2025, the G-8 — the world’s eight biggest economies — is likely to be, in order, the US, China, India, Japan, Germany, UK, France and Russia. BRICS serves as the key tag of the major emerging markets whose economic growth will outstrip and anchor the rest of the world. But it has been viewed with scepticism because of the diversity and spread of continents, political systems, values and economic models.

The natives are getting restless
Last October, President Dilma Rousseff was to be the first Brazilian leader in two decades to attend a White House dinner. Instead, angered by revelations that her personal phone calls and emails had been intercepted by the US National Security Agency (NSA), she became the first leader to cancel a State dinner hosted by a US president, lambasting American surveillance as a violation of international law and a “totally unacceptable” infringement of Brazil’s sovereignty. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is routinely demonised these days by American political leaders and media commentators as the second coming of Hitler (the downed Malaysia Airlines plane won’t help). Narendra Modi was on the US visa denial list for nine years (2005-14). It takes a particular skill to position oneself offside with leaders of three of the most important emerging powers.

Russia is being subjected to sanctions for its annexation of Crimea — which was Russian for several centuries and was voluntarily “gifted” to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev — despite the very concrete threats to its Russian-speaking population and to Russia’s core vital national security interests, a referendum whose margins of results may be questioned but not the overall outcome, and not one fatality.

The countries censuring Russia and imposing sanctions on it were responsible for the 2003 Iraq War whose legal and security justification was far more tenuous, the theatre was geographically distant not contiguous, and whose humanitarian and geopolitical consequences were far more horrific and destabilising.

Last December, a junior Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched over labour laws and wage disputes in a deliberate subordination of international conventions to domestic US law, when American diplomats posted abroad have been muscularly shielded from domestic laws even when they have killed host nationals. Chinese officials have been charged with cyber-espionage after the public revelations of the industrial-scale mass surveillance activities of the NSA. Beijing is told to solve its maritime disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas — to which Washington is not party.

The hubris and arrogance of the US-led West is so breathtaking as to be scarcely believable, as though they are blind or indifferent to how others see them.

BRICS-5 as a counterpoint to G-7
That same contempt for others’ voices, values and interests lies behind the creation, consolidation and evolution of the BRICS and their key decisions at the Fortaleza summit. The term was coined as a shorthand proxy to describe the shift in market power and geopolitical clout from the developed economies of the G-7 towards the large and populous emerging market economies. As last year’s Human Development Report put it, “The rise of the South is unprecedented in its speed and scale.” Moreover: “For the first time in 150 years, the combined output of the developing world’s three leading economies — Brazil, China and India — is about equal to the combined gdp of the long-standing industrial powers of the North — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and United States.”

BRICS is among the confetti of ‘G’ groups that dot the contemporary international political, security and economic landscape. In the constellation of G groups, the G-7 is the body that brings together the big rich economies (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US); BRICS brings together the big emerging powers; the G-77 is the international trade union equivalent of the poor developing countries; and the G-20 tries to ensure that the big countries from the global North and South work collaboratively rather than confrontationally to address common global challenges. In its logic, although not in practice, the G-20 is meant to be the forum of the countries of the world with global clout: all countries that have global clout and only those countries with clout.

The BRICS comprise those emerging powers whose rapidly growing economies, substantial populations, military capabilities and expanding diplomatic reach translate into rising power profiles. They pose a challenge to the US-dominated global architecture comprising the United Nations, World Bank and IMF trinity. On the eve of the first summit in Russia in 2009, Brazil’s then president, Lula da Silva, wrote of “broken paradigms and failing multilateral institutions”. The deficiencies have eroded the legitimacy and credibility of the international institutions and fostered mistrust between the global North and South. However, can the BRICS morph from a countervailing economic grouping to a powerful political alternative? Or is BRICS a construct of the social media-driven marketplace of ideas — an attention-grabbing glib phrase in which speed is a substitute for and trumps quality and depth of analysis?

Lack of unity, coherence and focus
Similar stances on a few contentious international issues are not enough to offset the crisis of identity caused by differing and sometimes clashing national priorities. The BRICS-5 are far from homogeneous in interests, values and policy preferences that leaves them open to the dismissive comment that the BRICS lack the necessary cement to bind them together. On some issues they have common interests with one another, while on others they compete against one another and collaborate with selected western powers. For example, India might join the US in a hedging strategy against China’s rapidly growing military footprint and assertive behaviour across Asia-Pacific, but team up with China against Europe and the US on greenhouse gas emission targets. The G-7 spread of per capita incomes (purchasing power parity dollars for 2013, using World Bank data) ranges from a low of $34,303 for Italy to $53,143 for the US. By contrast, for the BRICS, the per capita annual income goes from a low of $5,410 for India to a high of $24,120 for Russia, with China, South Africa and Brazil in the $12,000-15,000 range.

The BRICS-5 are totally different countries with separate histories, contexts, political and economic systems, needs, opportunities and development trajectories. In all, domestic priorities and problems trump club solidarity. They are riven with rivalries over borders, resources and status. India and Russia have border problems with China. The anxiety of India and China about rising energy prices must be set against Russia being a beneficiary, while Brazil is both a cause and beneficiary of rising food prices. China’s highly competitive exports inflict material harm on Brazil. Two are authoritarian States. The three democracies have their own subset called IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa), although they too have a tradition of reticence in global democracy-promotion efforts. Most are stuttering economically. All retain deep and specific ties with the pivotal northern countries and for all, bilateral relations with the US are more critical than with one another.

The most potent source of BRICS cohesion is geopolitical: the common interest in checking US/western power and imperialist impulses by leveraging collaboration with the other nonwestern powers. All have a strong vested interest in protecting strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US in global affairs. But they are divided on reform of the UN Security Council, with China’s interest lying more in a bipolar than a genuinely multipolar global order, and on the global economic effects of China’s currency value. While strong enough to veto western action, they lack the political clout and economic muscle to remake the status quo. Nor do they always act as a concerted bloc within other institutional settings. Even after the 2012 summit, a European and an American were chosen as IMF and World Bank chiefs.

Unrepresentative, yet representatives of global South
On those issues where there is a shared view among them, the BRICS can exert more significant leverage in combination than separately. Their natural constituency is the global South. Many developing countries remain worried that the forces of globalisation impinge adversely on their economic sovereignty, cultural integrity and social stability. “Interdependence” among unequals can mean the dependence of some on international markets that function under the dominance of others in setting norms and enforcing rules. The BRICS are anything but representative of the typical developing country in terms of size, area, power, economic weight, interest, capacity and resources. Only India is typical of the levels of poverty, illiteracy, low life expectancy and health indicators, etc. But what the BRICS can do and have done is to reflect and represent the interests and priorities of most developing countries, and leverage their atypical attributes of market power and geopolitical clout to negotiate with the developed countries, on many global challenges. Few other developing countries can match the BRICS in their market size and power, or legal, scientific, research and technology base. In other words, it is precisely the attributes making them atypical — size of population, GDP, military power, diplomatic reach, intellectual infrastructure — that gives the BRICS the capacity to represent the views, interests and concerns of the typical developing countries in international forums and negotiations.

But the BRICS do have the ability and will to represent the interests of developing countries on those issues where the global North-South division is salient. They can help to shape a new, post-2015 global development agenda of poverty alleviation, sustainable development and inclusive growth. They can share and learn from one another’s more relevant development experience, from China’s successes in reducing poverty and developing infrastructure to Brazil’s in clean fuel generation. And they can act as a counterweight to the West’s excesses in the UN, WTO, World Bank and the IMF. They reject militarisation of disputes and conflicts, promote political resolutions through diplomatic talks, work to soften the West’s interventionist impulse in the internal affairs of States, and are strongly opposed to infringements of territorial integrity and sovereignty. They share concerns about the financial and geopolitical dominance of the US-led West and support a rebalancing of the current global trade and financial system to reflect developing-country concerns and interests. They can give voice to developing country concerns on new rules for healthcare, pharmaceuticals, intellectual property rights, etc. Most developing countries view environmental, labour and human rights standards as disguised non-tariff barriers to protect uncompetitive western agricultural and manufacturing sectors. On intellectual property, whether it be with respect to generic lifesaving drugs and seeds for agriculture or traditional medicine, they can team up to take on the lobbying power of Big Pharma (e.g. Pfizer) and global agribusiness (Monsanto) to robustly protect the rights of poor people to affordable medicines, of poor farmers to affordable seeds, and of indigenous peoples to retain ownership of their traditional knowledge.

Global economic governance
The BRICS are at the forefront of demanding changes to both the institutions and the rules regulating the global economic order, including greater voice and vote in writing the rules and designing and controlling the institutions. They profess a shared vision of inclusive global growth and the rapid socio-economic transformation of their own nations in which no village is left behind. They come to the global governance table with a mutually reinforcing sense of historical grievances and claims to represent the interests of all developing countries. They share a commitment to State sovereignty and non-intervention. They proclaim the need for a rules-based, stable and predictable world order that respects the diversity of political systems and stages of development.

The biggest common interest of the BRICS is in global economic governance. There is an unsustainable disconnect between the highly indebted but politically dominant industrialised economies and, following that, between the distribution of decision-making authority in the existing international financial institutions and the realignment of economic power equations in the real world. Or, to put it another way, in the emerging new global balance of power, the old global political imbalances need to be readjusted to the new global economic imbalances.

The BRICS called for more responsive, flexible and rapid financing to low-income countries to help them ward off the contagion effects of the global financial crisis and shore up their national developmental objectives. They also called for reforming the international monetary system, to consider diversifying beyond the dollar as the de facto global currency, to take gradual steps in expanding the role of the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights as a supplemental global reserve asset option, and to give increased voice and vote on issues of global finance to developing countries. The G-20 had tried to redress the IMF’s democratic deficit by agreeing in 2009 to a 5 percent quota shift from developed to developing countries, which would have raised the latter’s share to 48 percent. The proposal has languished in the US Congress for five years and counting, effectively also sabotaging the planned further review and revisions of quotas that was to have begun in January 2013.

The New Development Bank
The system that privileges western powers and their biases is trapped in the old paradigm and out of sync with the new realities. Developing countries have noted how Europe was treated much differently during the Eurozone crisis from the harsh medicine meted out to Asia and Latin America in earlier crises. At the summit in New Delhi in 2012, BRICS advanced from being simply an expression of frustrated entitlement to sketching the outlines of an alternative configuration of global governance. The criticisms of the voting formula, funding priorities and executive directorship of the IMF and World Bank reflect both frustrations at how they are run, and growing self-confidence in their own roles as responsible stakeholder-managers of the system of global economic governance. They underlined the urgency of enhancing “the voice and representation of emerging market and developing countries” in the Bretton Woods institutions in order to “better reflect economic weights”. One critical test of whether BRICS can make the transition from a critic of the West-led system of global economic governance to a leader-cum-manager of an alternative system of, by and for developing countries, would be whether the idea of a BRICS bank floated for study in New Delhi bore fruit.

The BRICS move to set up their own development bank was a reaction to the West’s doublespeak. In 2012, Lula da Silva bluntly said the global financial crisis “was created by white men with blue eyes”. At the 2013 Durban summit, South Africa’s then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, remarked that the “roots of the World Bank and the IMF still lie” in the post-1945 equations. The five could not agree on the amount of seed money to start the bank nor on its location. South Africa put in a strong bid based on physical and financial infrastructure strengths, including corporate governance, auditing and accounting.

At Fortaleza, the five leaders reached consensus on the objectives, functions, capital subscription size, distribution among the member countries, governance structure and operational mechanisms. Four issues were up for discussion about the proposed bank: name, location, presidency and shareholding. It will be called the New Development Bank. It will be headquartered in Shanghai (with an African Regional Centre to be based in Johannesburg). The inaugural president will come from India, which claims credit for having first floated the idea. And the five countries agreed to equal shareholding. The bank is to be capitalised initially at $50 billion (and subsequently at double that amount), with each country contributing $10 billion over the next 7-8 years. It will give priority to loans for developing countries to finance infrastructure projects, industrialisation and productive, inclusive and environmentally sustainable development.

In addition, there will be an emergency reserve pool, called the Contingency Reserve Arrangement, with a $100 billion capital, of which $41 billion will come from China, $18 billion each from Brazil, India and Russia, and $5 billion from South Africa. Its purpose will be to help developing countries avoid short-term liquidity pressure, strengthen the global financial safety net, complement existing international arrangements, and foster more cooperation among the BRICS. Developing countries will be able to draw on the reserve if they face balance of payments crises or if their currency is under pressure. Russia and Brazil get the chairmanships of the two supervising boards.

The New Development Bank is bound to create competition for the World Bank and similar regional funds like the Asian Development Bank. The World Bank’s numerous critics are quick to charge that the institution has failed to lift any country out of poverty and instead has generally deepened poverty and created dependency. Only foreign creditors have done well from its projects. The original core missions of the IMF and World Bank targeted financial stability, employment and development. As the Washington Consensus of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation held sway after the 1980s, the conditionality attached to the “assistance” provided by the two Bretton Woods institutions inflicted significant economic cost and often grave political damage on many developing countries in trouble. Their operations and governance structures came to be seen as rigged against the voice, vote and interests of developing countries and skewed towards the industrialised bloc.

Jim O’Neill rightly commented that the establishment of the BRICS New Development Bank highlights the problems with the current system of global assistance and governance. Global governance just got a lot more interesting.

letters@tehelka.com

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 31, Dated 2 August 2014)

Where will India's poor go?

Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy
IN Pakistan, apprehensions are rife about Narendra Modi’s flamboyant success. But fervent Modi supporters in the Indian middle classes prefer to place him in the economic governance arena. Dawn recently talked to renowned Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, in Delhi to explore what Modi’s rise means for India.
“The massive, steeply climbing GDP of India dropped rather suddenly and millions of middle-class people sitting in the aircraft, waiting for it to take off, suddenly found it freezing in mid-air,” says Ms Roy. “Their exhilaration turned to panic and then into anger. Modi and his party have mopped up this anger.”

India was known for its quasi-socialist economy before it unfettered its private sector in 1991. India soon became global capital’s favourite hangout, sending its economy on a high. The neo-liberal roller coaster ride, however, hit snags. The Indian economy, after touching a peak of over 10pc growth in 2010, tapered down to below 5pc in the last three years. The Indian corporate class blames this lapse solely on the ruling Congress party’s ‘policy paralysis’. Its ‘meek’ prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was now identified as a hurdle. The aggressive Modi thus provided the ultimate contrast.

“What he [Modi] will be called upon to do is not to attack Muslims, it will be to sort out what is going on in the forests, to sweep out the resistance and hand over land to the mining and infrastructure corporations,” explains Ms Roy. “The contracts are all signed and the companies have been waiting for years. He has been chosen as the man who does not blink in the face of bloodshed, not just Muslim bloodshed but any bloodshed.” India’s largest mining and energy projects are in areas that are inhabited by its poorest tribal population who are resisting the forcible takeover of their livelihood resources. Maoist militants champion the cause of these adivasis and have established virtual rule in many pockets.

“Bloodshed is inherent to this model of development. There are already thousands of people in jails,” she says. “But that is not enough any longer. The resistance has to be crushed and eradicated. Big money now needs the man who can walk the last mile. That is why big industry poured millions into Modi’s election campaign.”

Ms Roy believes that India’s chosen development model has a genocidal core to it. “How have the other ‘developed’ countries progressed? Through wars and by colonising and usurping the resources of other countries and societies,” she says. “India has no option but to colonise itself.”

India’s demographic dynamics are such that even mundane projects, such as constructing a road, displace thousands of people, never mind large dams and massive mining projects. The country has a thriving civil society, labour unions and polity that channel this resistance. The resistance frustrates corporate ambitions. “They now want to militarise it and quell it through military means,” she says. Ms Roy thinks that the quelling “does not necessarily mean one has to massacre people, it can also be achieved by putting them under siege, starving them out, killing and putting those who are seen to be ‘leaders’ or’ ‘instigators’ into prison.” Also, the hyper Hindu-nationalist discourse which has been given popular affirmation will allow those resisting ‘development’ to be called anti-nationals. She narrates the example of destitute small farmers who had to abandon their old ways of subsistence and plug in to the market economy.

In 2012 alone, around 14,000 hapless farmers committed suicide in India. “These villages are completely resourceless, barren and dry as dust. The people are mostly Dalits. There is no politics there. They are pushed into the polling booths by power brokers who have promised their overlords some votes,” she adds, citing her recent visit to villages in Maharashtra that has the highest rate of farmer suicides in India.

So is there no democracy in India then? “It would be too sweeping to say that,” she retorts. “There is some amount of democracy. But you also can’t deny that India has the largest population of the poor in the world. Then, there hasn’t been a single day since independence when the state has not deployed the armed forces to quash insurgencies within its boundaries. The number of people who had been killed and tortured is incredible. It is a state that is continuously at war with its people. If you look at what is happening in places like Chhattisgarh or Odisha, it will be an insult to call it a democracy.”

Ms Roy believes that elections have become a massive corporate project and the media is owned and operated by the same corporations too. She opines that “some amount of democracy” in India is reserved for its middle classes alone and through that they are co-opted by the state and become loyal consumers of the state narrative of people’s resistances.

“The 2014 elections have thrown up some strange conundrums,” she muses. “For eg, the BSP, Mayawati’s party, which got the third largest vote share in the country, has won no seats. The mathematics of elections are such that even if every Dalit in India voted for her, she could have still not won a single seat.”

“Now, we have a democratically elected totalitarian government,” she continues. “Technically and legally, there is no party with enough seats to constitute an opposition. But many of us have maintained for several years that there never was a real opposition. The two main parties agreed on most policies, and each had the skeleton of a mass pogrom against a minority community in its cupboard. So now, it’s all out in the open. The system lies exposed.”

India’s voters have given their verdict. But the blunt question that Ms Roy raises remains unanswered: where will India’s poor go?

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2014