Vinoth Ramachandra

Author Archive

The Italian chemist Primo Levi survived Auschwitz and wrote several reflective accounts of that experience. His book If This is a Man is an extraordinary account of his life as a slave on rations that were not sufficient to sustain life. He was saved from death by Lorenzo, a non-Jewish Italian who was working for the Germans as a civilian on an industrial project using prisoners as labourers. Levi tells us what Lorenzo meant to him:

“In concrete terms it amounts to little: an Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward… I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”

“Thanks to Lorenzo”, Levi concludes, “I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

I am sure there are men and women like Lorenzo among the refugees and prisoners in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere, who have not lost their essential humanity. We shall, no doubt, read their stories one day. But, in the meantime, it is hard not to feel sickened at the unending savagery paraded before our eyes on TV screens, newspapers and Internet websites.

But is apathy, the deadening of emotion, the cynical attitude of “let them all kill themselves out there” not also obnoxious? It is understandable when the indifference is born of fear for one’s life; but usually it stems from the fear of having to change our views if we do start asking questions about what lies behind these stories of violent conflict and recognize the complicity of our own nations.

Equally obnoxious is the way some Third World politicians jump on the “Islamic terrorism” bandwagon to court support from the US and Israel. The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary has been talking recently of the “threat of Islamic terrorism” when not a shred of evidence has been offered for the existence of any jihadist group in the country. In fact, it is Muslims who have suffered loss of life and property at the hands of militant Buddhist mobs. The background to this “threat” talk is, of course, the UNHRC’s current investigation of war crimes and other human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

I received the usual brickbats over my last Blog post. One writer accused me of not being “balanced” by mentioning the businesses that support Hamas. I replied that I would like to know who is selling arms to Hamas so that I can boycott them; but that if I were to be truly “balanced” I would have to write a thousand words condemning Israel’s terrorism to every word condemning Hamas’s terrorism- for that, as I pointed out, is how the human proportions actually stack up.

For those who are open to questioning the received “wisdom” concerning Israel and its recent wars, I encourage you to read two brief articles by Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/08/outlaw-state-israel-part-i-2014819134157990462.html

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/08/outlaw-state-israel-part-ii-2014820134316991129.html

In an Afterword to If This is a Man, Primo Levi wrote: “It is certainly true that state terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

The chilling pictures of Israeli civilians watching and cheering from a hilltop the heart-rending massacre of people in Gaza by tanks and aircraft invite comparison with the worst Nazi horrors. Gaza is neither a state nor a country. It has no army. Sandwiched between Egypt on one side and the Israeli army on the other, the mostly defenceless Palestinians have been slaughtered in more than two weeks of relentless bombing by one of the most powerful militaries on earth, armed to its teeth by the United States and its European allies.

Disgracefully, the U.S was the only state that voted against a recent UN Human Rights Commission resolution calling for an international investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. Several EU states abstained. The typical Orwellian Newspeak of “Israel has the right to defend itself” flounders in the face of the horrendous statistics: more than a thousand Palestinians killed while the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets is counted as less than a dozen!

This is the way Israel has fought its wars in recent decades- showing contempt for international laws and the rules of military engagement. (For the disproportionate figures in recent conflicts in Gaza, see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28439404) I have often enough commented on this Blog of the hypocrisy and double standards of U.S administrations when it comes to human rights, a hypocrisy that undermines the efforts of all of us who seek to hold our own governments accountable for crimes against humanity.

If the U.S government and its timid European allies cannot be pressured into defending human persons in Palestine, to whom should we turn?

The Israeli military machine is dependent on Western business corporations. This raises the question of corporate responsibility regarding international law and human rights.

Israel procures a significant amount of its military hardware from US-based defence companies, a fact that solidifies the connection between US foreign policy and business agendas.

I am glad, therefore, to learn that the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard) that sold equipment to Israel that facilitated illegal activities such as the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, building an apartheid-like wall of separation, and the use of military drones in heavily civilian areas.

“Hewlett-Packard provides bio-scanners that are used to racially profile Palestinians and to track and control their movement,” explained Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation”, a national coalition that has mobilized support for boycott and divestment efforts. “It is no overstatement to say that many of these campaigns have dramatically shifted the discourse around Israel/Palestine – in the mainstream media, on university campuses, in the church pews, and beyond – in an unprecedented way,” she added.

In 2012, the United Methodist Church passed resolutions supporting the boycott of products made in Israeli settlements; and the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation divested its stockholdings in Caterpillar, HP, and Veolia Environnement, a French water, waste and transport management company involved in the construction of a tram system being built by French engineering companies on occupied Palestinian land. A year later, several Methodist regional conferences also voted to divest, and the Mennonite Central Committee board of directors unanimously decided that MCC (U.S) will not “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians, Israelis and other people groups.”

These are, admittedly, small steps. But several small steps can precipitate a social avalanche.

Corporations with internationally renowned brand names (such as the three above) are quick to respond to criticism with pious pronouncements about their ethical policies and commitments to respecting rights. However, reading Motorola’s human rights policy shows that the company only addresses internal employee issues such as safety in the workplace and fair working hours.

Of course it is not fair to blame business corporations for the use to which their products may be put by their buyers. But shouldn’t they be more discerning in their sales? Wouldn’t we be right to blame somebody who knowingly sold alcohol to an alcoholic or cigarettes to a schoolboy?

The 2011 United Nation’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” calls on business enterprise to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The document also calls on them to understand the “concerns of potentially affected stakeholders by consulting them directly… In situations where such consultation is not possible, business enterprises should consider reasonable alternatives such as consulting credible, independent expert resources, including human rights defenders and others from civil society.”

Ignorance of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) was largely the reason for the shocking complicity of many European Christians in Europe’s centuries-long maltreatment of the Jews. Today it is still ignorance of the Bible (especially the New Testament), coupled with ignorance of the 20th-century history of Palestine, which has led to the shocking betrayal by many American Christians of their brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank.

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

These words of Thomas Jefferson, extracted from a letter to George Washington in 1786, are carved in the interior wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Jefferson himself was no orthodox Christian, but he was heir to a Christian heritage, and deeply influenced by the English philosopher John Locke who was a committed member of the Church of England.

I recalled these words when a friend drew my attention to various controversies in the U.S which revolve around the decision of some public universities to exclude those religious groups who have strict conditions of membership. Sometimes the exclusion is couched in the language of “non-discrimination” against people who identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian”, at other times it targets any kind of “discrimination” that is based on specifically religious arguments, and (in the most bizarre cases) it is directed against any membership requirements at all.

This is the stuff of high farce. And we need a Swift or a Chesterton to do it justice. In a nation that proclaims “In God we trust” on its banknotes and “one nation under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, some universities and law courts are declaring that religious opinions and arguments have no place in public life. It seems that those who make these declarations are unfamiliar with the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence; the specifically theological origins of notions such as “equality”, “inherent human dignity”, “human rights”; and even the founding charters of the most famous universities in the U.S.

For those who do not subscribe to the “political correctness” ideology that has overtaken large swathes of American cultural life, the comparison with totalitarian regimes is pretty clear. It seems that while Americans are free to believe whatever they want, their freedom to manifest that belief in individual and collective practices is severely restricted.

The late Czech President Vaclav Havel shrewdly observed that under communist repression individuals were not required to have certain beliefs, but just behave publicly as though they did, keeping silent about what they themselves thought. He wrote: “For this reason they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.”

Respecting people is not the same as respecting their beliefs. A blanket respect for all beliefs is meaningless. Moreover, when all beliefs are said to be equally respected, all are equally ignored. What remains are the social and political practices of the dominant majority to which others must now conform. That spells the end of a free society.

It also spells the death of the university. Universities are institutions which should be giving the lead to the rest of society in how to engage in civil argument on controversial issues (e.g. whether sexual orientation is given and unchanging; whether “equality” should always trump “freedom”; whether “faith” and “reason” are necessarily opposed; whether “sexual identity” is a cultural construct, and so on). Rather than excluding groups who hold contrary views to the majority, universities committed to truth-seeking should be encouraging students and professors to debate the taken-for-granted assumptions of a society, even to the extent of critiquing the laws of the country. If this is what we expect in, say, Africa, why not in the USA?

It would also be interesting to hear what PC advocates understand by a “religious argument” and how it differs structurally from a “secular argument”. Postmodern philosophy in recent decades has excavated the hidden (and, therefore, all the more powerful) biases built in to the public discourse of “neutrality” and even “equality”. Secularist thinkers may not have sacred texts. But they do have their creedal Statements of Faith: “the autonomy of the individual”, the “sovereign will of the People”, “evolution is atheistic”, “no judgment beyond death”, and so on.

If a Republican student society were to refuse to let socialists sit on its committee, would it be considered “sociophobic”? Would Christians and Muslims be welcome in Atheist/Humanist societies? (If so, what would be the point of such a society?) Are college authorities banning all Sororities and Fraternities, and any ethnic-based student societies? Are the authorities planning to open the college doors to all who desire an education and not just those who have the money and the academic ability? These are some questions on which I seek enlightenment.

No institution or organization that eschewed clear standards of belief and practice would last very long. Without criteria of membership, and distinctive activities, they would soon cease to exist. They would have no character worth preserving. Sociological studies indicate that those institutions that make no demands on their members soon wither and die. It is what has happened to many mainstream churches in North America. It is probably what the militant secularists on American college campuses are hoping for- but the sword cuts both ways.

However, the exclusion of Christian groups may be a blessing in disguise. It can force Christians to stop “playing church” on campus (which is what the majority simply do); and instead to permeate all societies and academic conversations, bringing to these (humbly, yet boldly) a well-thought-through Christian mind and voice. No one can suppress that right.

[See, too, my Blog post of 16 July 2010: The Death of Argument?]

The French economist Thomas Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century is being widely acclaimed as a classic on par with Marx’s Capital and Keynes’ General Theory. Paul Krugman summarizes Piketty’s thesis thus: “The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality [in the USA], we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.”

In a sense this is hardly new; indeed, it is what some of us lowly amateurs have been saying for years- that economic inequality is cumulative and “hereditary”, that the highest incomes are not earned but “fixed”, that democracy is being hijacked by the rich and super-rich (the famous “one per cent” highlighted by the Occupying movement in the USA), etc. What Piketty brings to the argument is the kind of sophisticated statistical analysis and detailed data-gathering (based largely on tax records) beloved of technical economists. Whether Piketty’s work will lead to any major shift in mainstream economists’ neglect of distribution in favour of “growth” remains to be seen.

Inequality kills. Adam Smith himself pointed out that the ability to appear in public without shame requires more in a wealthy society than an overall poor one: at a certain point, he suggested, a man needs a linen shirt to be respectably dressed. The whole idea of a standard of poverty unrelated to the incomes of others is false. Becoming relatively worse off can actually make a person absolutely worse off, in terms of opportunities and social standing.

Two of the most unequal societies in the world are Brazil and China. I had the privilege of spending almost three weeks in Brazil last month. Brazilians are a warm, hospitable and friendly people on the whole, but the contrasts in wealth can be quite overpowering. Much of this inequality goes back to the colonial annexation of vast areas of land and the steady influx of European settlers for most of the past four hundred years. But government policies have also contributed.

There is relatively little investment in primary and secondary education. Educated elites exert pressure to skew the educational budget in favour of universities. There are some excellent public universities where enrolment is free. But the exams are so competitive that only rich students from the best-equipped private schools and who have the advantage of the right social contacts are able to pass. This is what makes access to prestigious public universities difficult for Brazil’s poor and lower middle classes. The latter are the favourite clientele of private institutions of higher education. Instruction at these private institutions, to which the vast majority of university students now belong, is generally poor.

Brazil’s media is technically “free”, but in practice the major media companies are owned by well-heeled supporters of the establishment. So only one side of the news gets reported. It is left to the new social media to highlight discrepancies between the official version of events and the ground realities. In this soccer-crazy nation, there is widespread opposition to the hosting of the World Cup in Brazil next month. The government is spending over US $15 billion of public money in new soccer stadia and hotels for the World Cup, while public spending on education and healthcare withers. To forestall demonstrations on the streets, the government is considering bringing back anti-terrorist legislation from the days of military rule. If, however, these protests attract 5,000-10,000 people every time, then they will become too difficult to police.

I was told that while drinking alcohol is forbidden in Brazilian soccer stadiums, an exception will be made during the World Cup since Budweiser is one of the principal sponsors.

These major international sporting events are more about national propaganda and the corruption of corporate and political elites than it is about sport.

China’s 100 richest men are collectively worth over $300 billion, while an estimated 300m people in the country still live on less than $2 a day. In January 2014, Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and prominent human rights activist was jailed for four years by a Beijing court (in a closed-door trial) simply for calling on Chinese officials to declare their assets. This is the same Chinese government that is courted by Western multinationals and to which Britain’s David Cameron offered last November “a dialogue of respect” as well as long-term British visas to its business elites!

A two-year reporting effort led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has revealed that more than a dozen family members of China’s top political and military leaders are making use of offshore companies based in the British Virgin Islands. The documents also reveal the central role of major Western banks and accountancy firms, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Credit Suisse and UBS in the offshore world, acting as middlemen in the establishing of such companies. Between $1 trillion and $4 trillion in untraced assets have left China since 2000, according to estimates.

The Chinese government has cracked down on citizens’ movements aimed at promoting transparency and accountability among the country’s elite. Foreign news sites that revealed details of offshore holdings by the relatives of China’s political leaders were blocked and internet service providers were ordered to target and report any users posting on the subject.

The connection between Picketty and Xu Zhiyong has not, to my knowledge, been drawn in the Western media. One is hailed as a rock-star economist, the other totally ignored.

Last Sunday, Pope Francis formally canonized John Paul II as a Saint of the Church. While disliking the notion of canonization, I nevertheless share in the celebration of John Paul II’s life. He was, undoubtedly, one of the most courageous Bishops the Church has produced, as well as being one of the great theological voices of the twentieth century.

John Paul II was Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, before he became Pope. His fellow Pole, the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1980, composed an “Ode on the Eightieth Birthday of John Paul II” which I reproduce below. (Ignore the woodenness of the English translation- I’m sure it is more lyrical in Polish!). It is an inspiration to all of us who continue to live under oppressive regimes and fear that our feeble words and actions carry little weight. Stalin’s famously derisive challenge to the Church- “How many divisions has the Pope?”-was answered ironically by a man who showed that, in his native Poland, divine truth could overthrow a demonic empire.

“We come to you, men of weak faith,
So that you might fortify us with the example of your life
And liberate us from anxiety
About tomorrow and next year. Your twentieth century
Was made famous by the names of powerful tyrants
And by the annihilation of their rapacious states.
You knew it must happen. You taught hope:
For only Christ is the lord and master of history.

Foreigners could not guess from whence came the hidden strength
Of a novice from Wadowice. The prayers and prophecies
Of poets, whom money and progress scorned,
Even though they were the equals of kings, waited for you
So that you, not they, could announce, urbi et orbi,
That the centuries are not absurd but a vast order.

Shepherd given to us when the gods depart!
In the fog above the cities the Golden Calf shines,
The defenseless crowds race to offer the sacrifice
Of their own children to the bloody screens of Moloch.
In the air, fear, a lament without words:
Since a desire for faith is not the same as faith.

Then, suddenly, like the clear sound of the bell for matins,
Your sign of dissent, which is like a miracle.
People ask, not comprehending, how it’s possible
That the young of the unbelieving countries
Gather in public squares, shoulder to shoulder,
Waiting for news from two thousand years ago
And throw themselves at the feet of the Vicar
Who embraced with his love the whole human tribe.

You are with us and will be with us henceforth.
When the forces of chaos raise their voice
And the owners of truth lock themselves in churches
And only the doubters remain faithful,
Your portrait in our homes every day remind us
How much one man can accomplish and how sainthood works.”

- New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 (Penguin Modern Classics)

India, the world’s largest democracy, is currently involved in a general election process that will take many weeks to execute. Cynics have often raised the question of what democracy can mean in a country where as much as a quarter of the population cannot read or write and where politics has not only been caste-based but has involved the buying of mass votes by politicians.

Similar questions were asked of me during a recent visit to Thailand. The latter has far better indicators of social welfare than India but a shorter history of democracy. Although never colonized, military rule only ended in the mid-70s (and the military and monarchical establishment continue to exercise a powerful influence on politics). It is salutary to remember that Western European democracies such as Spain, Portugal and Greece were freed from fascist political-military regimes not long before Thailand; and that women in Switzerland were only granted the vote in 1971.

Those in Thailand who vehemently oppose the present government believe it to be manipulated by the corrupt business tycoon and former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled Thailand in 2006. Thaksin’s economic policies proved very popular among peasant farmers who constitute the bulk of Thailand’s voting population. Opposition to Thaksin and his supporters come from a coalition of urban upper and middle-class groups whose slogan is “Reform before Elections”. They have used intimidation on the streets and at polling stations to scuttle government institutions. Their argument is that the poor are being duped by rural subsidies that are actually massive scams; and that politics in the country is so corrupt that government should be given over to a representative, but non-elected, group of academics and technocrats who can “clean up” corruption and pave the way for a properly-functioning democracy.

What is fascinating is that the debates recall the nineteenth and early-twentieth century arguments in Europe about the perils of democracy. The most perceptive political thinkers of the time (Mill, Constant, Tocqueville, Gladstone) argued passionately for the extension of political and civic liberties but agonised over the spectre of mass conformity, the downgrading of public tastes and the “tyranny of the majority” that popular government would bring. They devised safeguards against this danger, arguing for electoral and constitutional restraints, including entrenched rights that limited the scope of democratic decision-making while making the most of democracy’s potential for good.

There were, therefore, numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in their political positions, not least when it came to dealing with European colonial and imperial rule. John Stuart Mill, often called the father of modern political liberalism, famously argued that the “barbarous” people of India had to be educated into political liberty by first being subject to British rule. Not surprisingly, he followed his father into the Board of the British East India Company.

There are many illiberal democracies around today. From Putin’s Russia to Museveni in Uganda and Rajapakse in Sri Lanka, despots ground their legitimacy in electoral success. And in Western Europe, we have seen the rise of far-right political parties that have played to familiar themes of scapegoating new immigrants and demonizing minorities.

It is interesting that while the middle-classes of the world resent the populism of politicians who exploit the ignorance of the peasantry, there is little comparable anger at the subversion of democracy by the super-rich. This, after all, is what is crippling American politics. The Tea-Party has not only deeply divided the Republican Party but managed to shut down government in the nation’s capital.

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the greatest threat to America’s fledgling democracy lay in the greed of the mercantile class. Gross economic inequalities destroy social solidarity, and subvert democratic participation. Wherever we happen to live in the world, we know that those who have more resources are able to manipulate public policy in their favour at the expense of those with fewer.

At the same time, to pit freedom from want against freedom of thought and speech is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. “If someone takes away your bread”, wrote Albert Camus, “he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”

Where freedom is not cherished by a significant portion of the citizenry, and where people care more about their own sectional interests than the common good, liberal democracy cannot flourish. Moreover, Tocqueville observed: “Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”

Therefore Christians engaging in the public sphere should not be defending an abstract “democracy”, but rather the liberal values (which are also Christian values) on which a democracy that respects and safeguards the rights of all people ultimately rests; and then to argue that if such values, embedded in appropriate political institutions, are to take root we have to nurture a public culture that prizes both the love of freedom and voluntary self-restraint for the sake of the common good. Thus, contrary to some understandings of political liberalism, we cannot exclude moral and religious discourse from the public sphere.

More than 400 Nepali migrant workers have died on Qatar’s building sites since the Gulf state won the bid to host the soccer World Cup in 2022. At the same time, more than 20 Indian labourers die on average every month on Qatar’s construction sites as employers show an appalling lack of concern for workers’ safety and the Qatari authorities race to meet construction deadlines and keep costs down. It has been estimated that, unless radical improvements in labour conditions begin now, more than 4,000 workers (mostly from South Asia) would have been killed – and countless others permanently maimed- by the time the rest of the world turns up in Qatar to enjoy the soccer.

All over the oil-rich Gulf States, an apartheid-like social system prevails. At the top of the pyramid are the Arab sheikhs who will never get their hands dirty but who reap the profits. Just below them are the senior executives of American and European banks and corporations, followed by those in middle-management. Then come South and South-east Asian professionals and business folk. At the bottom of the stack are the migrant labourers, from Filipina housemaids to (at the very bottom) unskilled construction workers from the Indian subcontinent who live in squalid, over-crowded accommodation and have little or no legal protection. The latter are heavily indebted to loan sharks at home who have paid for their passage to the Gulf. When the sheer pace of construction combines with a desperation on the part of workers willing to make huge sacrifices to improve the living conditions of their families back home, the result is a massive potential for exploitation.

These grim statistics about worker mortality did not come through investigations by South Asian governments. Far from it. The latter show no interest in the plight of their migrant labour. All that concerns them is the foreign exchange the migrants earn and send home. The statistics were unearthed and published by a local news agency invoking India’s Freedom of Information Act (forcing the embassy in Qatar to reveal how many Indian citizens had died in the past two years) and human rights organizations such as the Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee (which compiled lists of the dead using official sources in Qatar).

When, last December, an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip-searched by federal agents for violating US visa regulations, it provoked howls of outrage among the Indian media. This was an “insult to the pride of the nation”; and the Indian government was prompt with its tit-for-tat reprisals against spouses of American diplomats working in India.

No such outrage attends the deaths of Indian construction workers in Qatar and elsewhere. The Indian social elites are not only apathetic towards their own poor, but they find them a deep embarrassment (“to the pride of the nation”) and wish they could simply disappear.

Writing in The Times of India three decades ago, the well-known sociologist Rajni Kothari lamented: “As I talk to my friends, my relatives, my professional colleagues today, I get a feeling of total ignorance of the other India. When in fact they are forced to take note, such as when they walk through the pavements on which people are sleeping, there is a feeling of revulsion, of rejection, of contempt, not of compassion, empathy and least of all of any sense of guilt.”

Little has changed since Kothari wrote these chilling words. The hyped-up talk in Western media about India’s “economic boom” ignored the fact that economic growth was not accompanied by any significant increase in employment. The only “dynamic” private activity that has generated more jobs in the past decade has been construction. However, most construction in India is marked by a lack of concern for minimal standards of worker safety and other basic protections, just as in Qatar. Indeed, we don’t know how many workers die or are injured while working on building sites in India, because such data is rarely gathered.

An eminent Indian economist, Jayati Ghosh of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, cites official National Sample Survey data to state that about 95 per cent of all Indian workers are stuck in informal activities, “in precarious and often exploitative and low-paying contracts.” More than half of these are self-employed, which means that they are responsible for their own safety.

Ghosh also observes that neglect of workers’ rights has been part of an economic strategy that sees economic growth as worth almost any cost. Private investors must be provided with all sorts of incentives by the state to allow them to deliver growth. Any kind of worker protection is seen as inhibiting “wealth creation”. This strategy delivered growth (but without creating decent jobs) for a while; now even that growth is running out of steam.

Given this context, it is no wonder that the urban and rural poor are desperate to migrate abroad in search of work, even leaving young families behind. In places like Qatar, Dubai or Singapore, it will take several years before they have paid off the loan sharks from the meagre remittances they send home. Recognising the rights of migrant workers cannot be separated from the need to recognise the rights of workers in their home countries. And this would mean bringing morality and political responsibility back into the heart of economic policy.


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