PCDForum Paradigm Warrior Profile #6 Release Date May 20, 1997
Interview with Smitu Kothari, by David C. Korten
Smitu Kothari is an editor of the Lokayan Bulletin published by the Lokayan (“Dialogue of the People”) group in Delhi, India. He also co-edits Ecologist Asia with Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, and Bittu Sahgal, is currently writing two books, and is an active participant in many of India’s popular social movements. Recognized as one of India’s leading intellectual-activists, Smitu’s life is devoted to contributing toward the melding of a broad spectrum of social forces in Indian society into a popular political movement for the creation of a just, sustainable, and inclusive Indian society.
Korten: I’ve long been impressed by the breadth of your engagement with India’s social movements. What can you say about the underlying context and strategy of your work?
Kothari: My guiding commitment is to contribute in a modest way to the consolidation of democracy, social justice and ecological sanity in India and the subcontinent. Our existing democratic institutions, are not only deeply flawed, their predominant dependence on electoral politics as a means of popular representation makes them politically inadequate to the task of actively engaging hitherto subjugated and marginalized peoples into the political process. It must be acknowledged that, to some extent, these institutions are in a dynamic relationship with the forces of popular democratization. The resultant widening of democratic aspirations, despite economic and political centralization, are challenging elite-led development. For in-stance, recently, responding to decades of popular movements by those excluded from political participation, the Indian parliament was compelled to make constitutional amendments which give legal status to local elections and give guaranteed representation to women and weaker caste groups. But a lot needs to be done since elites continue to devise new ways of sustaining their dominance and of co-opting and dividing these emergent voices. Basic security and control over productive natural and economic resources are still denied to a majority of the population and an overwhelming range of policy and planning measures are adopted with little or no public debate.
In support of the “local,” my commitment is also responding to the need for a wider self-conscious process of deeper democratization of our national, regional and global governance institutions. We need fresh thinking as to what these institutions will look like, how their internal processes will be democratized, and what will be the vertical and horizontal relations within and among them. The inter-institutional relations become important both in the context of a centralizing economy and in the context of the exploding ecological crisis which is impoverishing millions and which increasingly spans conventional political borders, such as when deforestation in Nepal causes floods in India or fossil fuel consumption in the industrialized world engenders flooding and displacement of hundreds of thousands in Bangladesh. We need to urgently create new forms of inter-institutional cooperation to address these trans-boundary problems which compound the struggles for survival of millions on the planet.
This context has therefore defined three levels of political engagement for me. First, I am active in a number of India’s social and political and human rights movements. Second, I am involved in efforts to create stronger national and regional alliances and representative forums of these movements. And third, I am working to build cooperation among citizen groups globally to deal with problems that transcend national borders.
In addition to co-editing the two journals and writing a book on the cultural history of the Narmada river (which includes chapters on the movement), I’m especially active right now in strengthening the Delhi support base for the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) committed to people-centered development. The alliance brings together such initiatives as the Movement to Save the Narmada, which was formed around resistance to the then World Bank-funded Sardar Sarovar Dam Project on the Narmada river; the National Fishworkers Federation, a nationwide federation of fishing communities who have waged historic struggles against the exploitation of coastal fisheries by foreign and domestic corporate owned trawlers and against commercial shrimp cultivation along India’s coast line; and, the Movement to Protect India’s Independence, which is a group of activists opposing the activities of transnational corporations in different parts of the country.
Most of these groups and movements have strong grassroots memberships, but their presence in the capital is often weak. The NAPM provides them with a national forum and the support base in Delhi facilitates research, campaigning and access to the national government and the media. So, for instance, if the central government does not act to cancel the licenses issued to corporate trawler operations, then the NAPM can jointly plan a series of national actions on behalf and with the active participation of the National Fishworkers’ Federation. We facilitate their dialogue with top level political leaders and their access to the media. On occasion, we provide research and documentation support, conduct fact-finding missions and share information and analysis that come to us from other parts of the country and the world. I have been involved with many of these movements as a political organizer and activist. These involvements also help assure that the Lokayan Bulletin remains responsive as a forum of debate about the perspectives and strategies of these groups.
Korten: Could you elaborate on the specific ways in which you are involved?
Kothari: Say the National Fishworkers’ Federation or the Narmada movement is organizing a mass rally or an event in Delhi for representatives of their members’ organizations to meet with local intellectuals, scholars, journalists, and representatives of the government and opposition parties. I assist in making the phone calls and setting up the arrangements. We make little distinction between these essential campaign tasks and representing these movements in formal delegations or engaging with them in critical debates. So all this gives me a direct involvement in the movements which is complementary to my roles in Lokayan, the press and the research community as an engaged commentator on democratic rights and democratic struggles in the country and beyond.
It isn’t always easy to maintain a balance between sticking stamps on campaign letters, and writing a scholarly piece on civil society or ecological justice or globalization and there have been moments where the process of achieving a balance becomes a source of tension. Most colleagues and friends in the movement understand, however, that through my writing I am contributing to both creating greater legitimacy for their efforts and to bringing forward questions and analysis that they need to engage in to move us all collectively forward.
Korten: What are some of the important issues facing the progressive movements?
Kothari: One major concern is the marriage of convenience that is taking place between the forces of Hindu nationalism and the forces of globalization. At one level, some of the groups that are part of the Hindu nationalist movement are committed to strengthening self-reliance and are part of a critique of the transnationalization of the Indian economy. It is these groups that were active in the opposition to the Pepsico Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and the recent opposition to the Miss World beauty pageant in Bangalore.
At another level, however, the political parties and leaders representing the Hindu nationalist sensibilities are seeking to build their legitimacy through a selective alliance with the economic and political forces of national and global capitalism. As a consequence, the Hindu nationalists are at once destroying the secular and pluralistic fabric of Indian society through their defense of a monolithic Hindu India, while at the same time supporting economic policies of global market integration that lead to economic and cultural homogenization.
So, while there are dissenting forces to the neo-liberal economic agenda within these parties, the dominant economic thrust is supported by all major leaders, both because they are wedded to the current patterns of economic development and because there are massive personal short-term gains from joint venturing with the forces of global capital. This marriage of convenience is an extremely dangerous force. It coerces the psyche of the people by manipulating their identification with selected religious symbols and idioms. At the same time, it advances policies in which they have almost no say, which speed their integration into a global system that is highly iniquitous and destructive of their plural cultural and spiritual traditions.
Korten: Do you think the leaders of Hindu nationalism recognize the conflict between their own principles and their alignment with the neoliberal agenda?
Kothari: All political parties in India are broadly subscribing to the package of neoliberal market reforms that were promoted by the Congress Party in 1990 and by the then Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh. The neoliberal model dominates even though the Congress Party was defeated in 1996 and most members of the present 14-party ruling coalition are somewhat more supportive of more socially responsible programs and spaces for democratic struggles. The reasons are quite straightforward. The world view of trickle down development fueled by rapid industrial and technological development is still widely held. Even to the Hindu nationalists this represents progress. They are also attracted by the shallow prestige and political legitimacy of participating in the global economy and, perhaps even more, by the 15 to 20 percent commissions on almost every foreign deal. There has definitely been an escalation of large scale corruption over the past six years as India has embraced market liberalization policies. Corruption is not new to our society, but we have never before experienced anything on this scale.
Recently there has been a welcome trend. Responding to wide public anger against corruption, a growing number of judges in state and national courts are taking the first steps to frame charges against the most powerful people in the land for their involvement in these deals. The previous Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, is involved in two inquiries and will probably go to jail.
The larger the economic activity and the more distant it is from the people, the more difficult it is to maintain public accountability. We need to keep reiterating this, because the foreign investors will say that it is the responsibility of national governments to put in mechanisms to monitor corruption, but the fact is that the corruption is inevitably perpetuated and deepened by their presence. Meanwhile, the World Bank and the IMF press for greater “economic efficiency” in welfare spending, leading to a significant withdrawal of critical subsidies from public health care, poor farmers, and state-owned corporations. Not once has there been any mention of withdrawing the massive public subsidies provided to national and global corporate activity.
Korten: The apparent contradiction of nationalistic demagogues of the right promoting national integration into the global economy is fascinating. It seems remarkably similar to what we have been experiencing in the United States-and indeed what is happening in many parts of the world. The far right claims moral legitimacy based on religious fundamentalism, a professed commitment to greater local control, and a xenophobic nationalism. At the same time they advocate neoliberal economic policies that advance a materialistic consumer monoculture, disempower the local, and strengthen the hand of global capital. Repeatedly, it seems the contradiction is largely explained by the money-both legal and illegal-flowing to the leaders of fundamentalist, right-wing political organizations and politicians from corporations and other major financial interests. It seems the self-righteous slip rather easily into self-justification.
How are popular movements in India facing up to the challenge and what insights are you getting into how we can counter the unholy alliance between fundamentalist nationalism and economic globalization?
Kothari: The fact that the energies of the popular movements remain dispersed. Though there are efforts like the National Alliance of Women’s Organizations and the National Alliance of People’s Movements, personal egos and differences in goals and perspectives make it difficult to organize a solid front against the forces of economic and political centralization and religious extremism and chauvinism.
We are also hindered by the fact that though the logic of the work we have done in the past 25 years should be leading to coordinated efforts to put in place economic alternatives based on local and national self-reliance and religious tolerance, a significant proportion of the farmers and poorer communities in the country have had no other model to aspire toward but to become urban middle class consumers. Whatever the claims of the movements, at the level of popular consciousness a large proportion of their support base embraces those aspirations without realizing that the very dynamic of the neoliberal economic system itself assures that few will ever realize these aspirations. We face an enormous challenge of engaging these communities in a process of delegitimating the culture of consumerism and creating commitment to viable alternatives. We must link the numerous democratic “locals” into a system of mutual accountability further linked to similar efforts in the North that are contesting corporate power, social inequality and violence and practicing religious tolerance and humane people-centered development. Only then can we hope to contain and eventually marginalize the unholy alliance and its constituent members.
Korten: Again, a strong parallel to our situation in the United States. How can we address this challenge?
Kothari: One answer may be to wait for the global system to collapse under the forces of its own corruption and destructive excess. But the costs in terms of the ruin of social and cultural cohesion and ecological degradation and destruction will be enormous. We have to consciously engage ourselves with these communities, especially the younger generation, through dialogue, mobilization, training programs, dissemination of literature, education, and debate with policy makers and politicians. We must continue to be non-violently subversive and militant. The price of failure is that millions of people will continue to be pushed either toward religious extremism, chaotic social disruption or toward becoming dependent consumers on the margins of the global market system.
This educational effort is a central concern of the Movement for People’s Development, a loose coalition of people’s movements, support groups, single issue groups, and individuals of which I am a founding member. Under the auspices of this group I have organized two successful training programs for leaders of groups and movements to discuss issues of neo-liberal economic policies, globalization, and the dominant economic model. Many of these leaders in turn have gone on to run similar programs in local languages throughout the country for peasants and tribals and women’s organizations. These initiatives have generated a positive response in a context where so many of the rural poor are migrating to the cities as a way of freeing themselves from the oppression and discrimination of the rural areas. In the end this can be changed only through the success of popular movements aimed at making rural areas more just, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable.
These are all difficult, inter-related and often neglected political issues to which I devote much of my time. I am also calling these issues to the attention of a wider group of activists and scholars through regular contributions to our national and local newspapers as well as through articles for scholarly and popular publications both nationally and internationally.
Korten: I understand you are also active in a number of South Asian regional initiatives.
Kothari: While the South Asian governments are threatening each other through the build up of their military establishments and nuclear capabilities, I’m working with a group of close friends throughout the region to build citizen’s initiatives mobilizing public opinion in support of improved relations between our states and a no-war pact that would include China, as well as Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. The agreement would declare the region a nuclear-free zone and call for the denuclearization of the world. We are also working together to create a framework for a strong, self-confident, autonomous, and relatively self-reliant region that would give primacy to trading and the sharing of resources and technology within the region rather than continuing with the debilitating and dependent relationship with the industrialized world.
Korten: I understand you intend to make a personal lifestyle change-to return to the land.
Kothari: I see it as a creative personal response to the challenge of globalization. The intent is not to escape to the local, but rather to place myself within the local to challenge the global from a position of greater honesty and integrity. It is a way of getting beyond the contradictions we live as socially active urban citizens. I don’t want to just talk about sustainable living-I want to practice it. Part of it is definitely the influence of Gandhi. The impulse also comes from a long engagement with the area where I want to move-a place where friends and colleagues have been working for the last seven years to restore and regenerate some extremely degraded land in Anantpur District of Andhra Pradesh. They are nurturing small miracles and showing the way to an ecologically and socially equitable and responsible future. The vision is not anti-technological, but deeply respects the cycles and limits of this fragile planet and restores the ethic of our being mere stewards for future generations. We plan a host of activities in the coming years to establish this center as one of the many centers of people-centered development. For instance, next year there will be a seed festival where farmers from 30 or 40 villages will bring their seeds to share and discuss other ways of sharing and building a response to the extremely aggressive efforts by state governments and foreign agribusiness corporations to commercialize agriculture.
Even though the transition to this area will take several years I feel this will be a good base from which to carry out a collective plan to build a political base that nurtures and represents a broad spectrum of efforts to create a saner, more ecologically and socially just world.
Smitu Kothari is a contributing editor of the PCDForum and co-editor of the Lokayan Bulletin, 13, Alipur Road, Delhi 110 054, India, (O) (91-11) 231-378; Phone/Fax (91-11) 294-1375. Interviewed by David C. Korten in New York City, October 1996.
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