WITH SO MUCH THAT IS ROTTEN today in the state of India, one wonders if redemption is possible. The revelations emerging from the 2G scam show a machinery of state whose wheels are so well greased by corporate cronyism and corruption that they threaten to spin the country’s democracy into the mud pits of oligarchy. In 2009, an Asian Development Bank Report warned that unless India took measures to reign in corporate control, “the market and political power of major corporations will become a drag on long-term growth and a source of distortion in policy.” It also warned of the inevitable loss of faith by the masses in a democratic market-based system. Despite the much-celebrated emergence of the great Indian middle class, the wealth gap in India is growing. The combined wealth of India’s growing number of billionaires is equivalent to a whopping 31 percent of the entire nation’s gross domestic product—three times the comparable figure for the United States and ten times that of China.
As the 2G tapes reveal, India’s powerful corporate houses treat the government of the people as their own private rubber-stamp agency and profit centre, expecting New Delhi to dole out lucrative infrastructure contracts as well as permissions and clearances for privileged access to national resources, especially land and minerals. What suitcases of cash fail to get the government to cough up, public opinion suitably molded via the media can facilitate. When that also may fail, there is always the private sector’s ‘nuclear option’: the threat to scare off foreign investors and bring India’s golden growth machine to a halt if, God forbid, the laws of the land protecting the environment and citizens’ basic rights are actually implemented.
This may explain why the business press has reliably depicted Jairam Ramesh, India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, as a one-man threat to India’s economic miracle, who sends the ‘wrong signal’ to investors. Though he has granted approval to projects like the construction in Jaitapur of a nuclear power plant by the French nuclear giant Areva—subject to 35 conditions and safeguards, reasonably enough—Ramesh’s willingness to suspend, revoke or impose moratoria on development projects previously green-lighted in contravention of laws protecting the environment and people’s rights has shocked the oligarchy. One after another, projects dear to the pockets of some of the world’s most powerful corporations but potentially devastating to India’s poorer citizens and its damaged environment—from genetically modified vegetables (Monsanto) to mining operations (Vendanta)—have been brought to a screeching halt by the environment minister.