Indian women confront globalization

By Paul Jeffrey

Jagrupani Devi's well has run dry, and she blames Coca-Cola. Since the giant soft drink manufacturer took over a nearby bottling plant six years ago, the water level in her ancient well has dropped until it finally disappeared from site. The 55-year old farmer has a deeper well with a hand pump, but she says she has to pump and pump until finally only dirty water emerges.

"I grew up here, and even when we had a long drought the water in our wells never dropped so low," said Ms. Devi, who lives in Mehdiganj, just outside the city of Varanasi in northern India. "When there's no water, life gets hard for us. The rice doesn't grow well. What are we poor people supposed to eat?"

Ms. Devi and her neighbors, some of whom also suffer from the bottling plant's allegedly toxic waste that at times is pumped onto surrounding fields, have not sat idly by while their water table disappeared. Twice Ms. Devi has been arrested while protesting in front of the massive bottling plant. She was scheduled in November to travel to the U.S. to speak at a protest outside Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters, but the U.S. consulate in New Delhi denied her a visa.

"All we know how to do is farm, but how are we supposed to farm without water?" she asked.

Coca-Cola has 44 bottling plants scattered around India, and they're not having an easy time. A parliamentary committee found that Coke–along with Pepsi–contained dangerous levels of pesticides, and is pushing to make the bottlers detail the pesticides as ingredients on their labels. (Farmers in some parts of India have started spraying Coca-Cola directly on their crops, claiming it's cheaper than applying pesticides directly.) Operations at two Coke plants have been stopped by government authorities, and protesters are struggling to close several of the remaining factories.

Those efforts are hampered by India's rampant corruption, however. "Coke that's produced in the United States doesn't contain pesticides, but it does here. They've taken the people of the third world for a ride," said Sandeep Pandey, an U.S.-trained engineer who heads the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements.

"We're up against a giant with no dearth of money. They've been able to influence everyone here, bribing everyone, from the police to the media. Most of the media here won't even name Coca-Cola. They just say, ‘a soft drink company.' And it has a wide reach. In a phone interview with a South African radio station, they asked us not to name Coca-Cola, but instead to say ‘a soft drink company,'" he said.

Coca-Cola officials in India deny the allegations, and their website claims the protesters are really motivated by "an anti-globalisation agenda." They claim the water level in Mehdiganj has risen since Coke began its operations there.

According to church workers involved in the protest movement, more is at stake than just Ms. Devi's water. They point to the massive investment by transnational corporations in producing bottled water in India.

"Wherever you go in India, when you come to someone's house the first thing they offer you is water. The host brings water in a basin and the guests wash their feet, then their hands, and then a glass of water to drink is offered. To commodify something that's essential in this culture is unacceptable," said Alex Philip, a Catholic priest in Varanasi who has also been arrested for protesting at Coke's Mehdiganj plant.

According to Amand Mathew, another Catholic priest involved in the protests, manufacturing the carbonated beverage destroys thousands of jobs for people who long produced local fruit-based drinks. "Those people don't have jobs today because Coca-Cola, with its advertising with movie stars and cricket players, has succeeded in getting its products into remote villages. These are places where medicines aren't available, but you can get Coca-Cola there," he said.

"Mutant variety of colonialism"

The battle over water at Mehdiganj is but one small facet of a larger battle raging throughout India today. When the Indian government renounced protectionism and threw open its economic borders in the early 1990s, the transnationals of the world–including Coca-Cola–came rushing in. The resulting economic boom has made some Indians very wealthy; the richest five Indians (worth $24.8 billion) are wealthier than their counterparts in Britain ($24.2 billion), the former colonial master. India has more than $130 billion in foreign exchange, and millions of tons of surplus food stocks.

Yet not everyone has been invited to the celebration. Chronic malnutrition affects 46 percent of Indian children. Of the 800 million children who go to bed hungry every night throughout the world, one-quarter of them live in India, which has just 17 percent of the world's population. Some 700 million Indians live on less than $2 a day; 300 million live on less than $1 a day. The hallmarks of a modern economy–such as big dams and big roads–benefit only a few, while inundating or destroying the homes of millions of the poorest. Despite having a much more robust economy, India has fallen behind Bangladesh, its chronically poor neighbor, in several measures of development, including school enrollment and infant and maternal mortality.

Globalization has proved itself to be a "mutant variety of colonialism," according to writer and activist Arundhati Roy. "This time around, the colonizer doesn't need even a token white presence in the colonies. The CEOs and their men don't need t go to the trouble of tramping through the tropics, risking malaria, diarrhea, sunstroke, and an early death. They don't have to maintain an army or a police force, or worry about insurrections and mutinies. They can have their colonies and an easy conscience. ‘Creating a good investment climate' is the new euphemism for third world repression," declared Roy in her book Power Politics.

The picture isn't universally glum, however. A few Indian states–such as Kerala, with decades of communist governments–have achieved high rates of literacy, citizen participation, and relatively equitable economic growth. Kerala's success, however, only goes to prove the rule for India as a whole.

In most of the country, globalization has not only widened the economic gap, but also set much of India apart from its unique cultural heritage, including the comprehensive understanding of independence championed by Mohandas Gandhi. Globalization has driven up dowry deaths and fueled communal violence. Moreover, it has eaten away at the soul of what it means to be Indian.

Observing what has happened in the land of her birth, U.S.-based Indian writer Pramila Jayapal writes in her book Pilgrimage to India: "[T]he focus on economic development subordinates the wealth of culture, tradition, and spirituality . . .In making material development the ultimate apex toward which to ascend, inner development is sidelined. Too often, the emphasis on outer development goes hand in hand with a loss of self-respect, interconnectedness with others or reverence for that which cannot be controlled by humans."

"Start thinking like Bob"

The solution to the problems of globalization, some argue, is more of the same. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times apologist for globalization, cites the success of the Indian software giant Infosys and suggests that the developing world faces a choice between "two basic responses to globalization: Infosys and Al Qaeda." According to writer Naomi Klein, Friedman believes "happy workers paid to help US tourists locate the luggage they've lost on Delta flights are less inclined to strap on dynamite and blow up those same planes."

While it's true that the knowledge sector of the Indian economy–software, business outsourcing, call centers–has grown dramatically in recent years, transforming Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad into new traffic-jammed Silicon Valleys, replete with billboards for Pizza Hut proclaiming "Gigabites of Taste!", the benefit of such growth has been limited.

"The [information technology] sector has generated a huge number of jobs, but it's really just a fraction of the unemployed, and it's certainly class-centered, as only people with a certain kind of education can get into it. And it creates cultural distortion, as you have to put on an accent, stop thinking about your own daily life at home and start thinking like Bob or Philip or Jane or Mary. You have to start celebrating their festivals. You have to literally start feeling and living and thinking and being like them," said Madhu Bhushan, India coordinator of the Asian Women Human Rights Council, whose work with victims of violence is supported by the Women's Division.

According to a study of call center operators by the Center for Women's Development Studies in New Delhi, the workers suffered from sleep disorders and stomach problems, as well as from tensions over disrupted social lives–a product of staying up all night so they can talk with daytime callers from North America.

Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, a professor at United Theological College in Bangalore, reports women are sought after by recruiters for the call centers because they're generally considered more dependable. Yet the excitement of the new job quickly wears off.

"Their name changes. Their whole identity changes. They live in an imaginary world. They think they're getting a good sum for it, but we really have to ask at what cost. People don't ask that question," she said.

"The recruiters target brilliant women who do excellent work, but rather than going on for more studies or developing their own skills in their areas of potential, they're going to work in the call centers. It's a fast buck. You can make 30,000 or 40,000 rupees [$600-800] a month. But at the end you don't make it; maybe only five of 100 make it. The other 95 can't handle the four times the shift changes within a month; their body clock doesn't accept it. They have serious domestic problems, crises of their health and their relationships. One woman told me that the day she joined, it was heavenly, beautiful. Three weeks later she said it was like being in a cemetery. She felt like a walking ghost. All this in the name of progress," said Dr. Anderson-Rajkumar.

The benefits of technology-led growth industries usually accrue more to men, according to Smita Berma, head of the sociology department at Isabella Thoburn College, a Women's Division-supported school in Lucknow. She cites India's earlier experience with the so-called green revolution, when many agricultural areas were converted to large-scale, chemical-intensive production.

"In the green revolution, tractors came and were run by men, and the little jobs that women had, of sowing seeds for example, were done away with. The poorest lost out. So while technology is neutral, it often has negative impacts on women. It can be beneficial, if there's an equal distribution of the benefits, and if we can develop an educational system that encourages people to think and talk for themselves," Dr. Berma told Response.

Dr. Anderson-Rajkumar insists globalization has its positive side. "Networking and solidarity with women across the world is easier today because of globalization. An issue here is an issue everywhere. We can fight issues across borders. I get emails all the time from women coming together and protesting issues, and this advocacy and campaigning really works to make change. But that doesn't overcome the fact that the poorest of women have suffered from globalization, and they continue to suffer," she said.