Yves in India Blog: Day 3 & 4

2008-10-14 00:00


Snippets from the day.


I read a newspaper report in which a family is burnt to death in an outbreak of "communal violence" doesn't sound very communal to me, and I discover that this is code for religious strife between Muslims and Hindus.


While I've seen no road rage incidents, I read of a cellphone shop owner being stabbed to death over a R16 rebate.


The country seems ecstatic over the beatification of Saint Alponsa.


A big debate in newspapers and on TV is whether homosexuality should be decriminalized. Not that it's related, but transvestism abounds.


As the conference is about to start, one of the delegates, an imposing man who turns out to be a nuclear physicist intimately involved in India's nuclear programme, desperately asks around if there's a TV set anywhere so he can keep track of the cricket match between India and Australia.

Above: Woman selling marigold and rose petals at the Gandhi memorial flame.

Above: Semi-precious stone inlay in marble walls at the Red Fort in Delhi


We want to go shopping so the women in the group ask the cab driver to 'take us to the mall''. We go to a handicraft "Emporium". No, No we cry, we've been there, done that. We want a real mall. So he takes us to another mall. Is that all that foreigners want? Please, we want to go where the people shop. So he takes us to Connaught Place, the new part of old Delhi typified by the bungalow architecture of Lutyens but which is making way for 'development'. It's the 'ordered' part of town, and I feel at home because it's downtown Church Street where we finally disembark. 'Hallo, hallo' sounds from all around. Tap tap on the arms. "Very cheap, money back". Before long this becomes background noise as the serious business of buying starts. Part of the confusion over where to go is not only shopping habits, but a perceived preference by visitors to shop where there are prices on tags so you know what you're buying. Everywhere else, says the cabbie, there's 'bargaining', which not of us is uncomfortable with. 45 minutes later, the packets are full and we head home, all bargained out.



We're in New Delhi under the auspices of the India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) initiative. As a quick exercise amongst ourselves, we journalists test each other on what we know about our respective countries. The Brazilians hardly know that South Africa is on the map, and the only flicker of recognition is when the name Carlos Parreira comes up. What do I know about Brazil: Pele, soccer and more soccer, the destruction of the Amazon forest and the standoff with indigenous Indians, the Rio carnival, pirhanas and lost tribes. I didn't know that they had their own aero industry or that they're pace-setters in biofuels. The Indians know about South Africa of course, and not only because of Gandhi. They struggle to remember the name of our temporary president, but that's understandable. This quiz comes up as a question later in the day, in a more formal and intellectual way, as speakers grapple with the need, the potential and the practicalities of forming a bloc across inconvenient distances of geography, culture and politics.

Above: The SA and Brazilian journalist delegation.

Above: Durban businessman Vivian Reddy at the business forum.

Our editors' conference is one of four taking place at the same time. Across the hall is a Women's conference, where Minister in the Presidency Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has put in an appearance and where we're told the discussion is around page 3 cleavages. (At lunch I ask the press director in the ministry of external affairs, Nagma Mallick, about the sex gap in India. "That is a most embarrassing question, and for me as a woman even more so," she says. The ratio between women and men in the north can sink as low as about 700 women to 1000 men, and in the south it's more even at about 900-1000. Sex-specific abortions are rampant - "technology has allowed the full flowering of prejudices," says Mallick, as couples abort after scans pick up girl children. The life expectancy for women in general, she adds, is about 52 years, to 62 years for men. But there are signs of change, as women's earning capacity in good jobs, and the independence it brings, is starting to create some shifts towards not viwing women as a liability).

Apart from the women, business is also getting into a huddle across town and apparently Patrice Motsepe and Tshabalala-Msimang's daughter Gloria are there, as well as Durban businessman Vivian Reddy. And there's an academic conference too, which all together is creating quite a buzz in this city of diplomats.

In the opening remarks, Dr Pratap Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, expresses the hope that we will all follow the example of the Argumentative Indian (by Amartya Sen), which I vaguely recall as the title of a book and touches on what, judging from the debates on TV, on the streets, in the cab and in homes, seems to be a national characteristic.

There is no 'text book template' for a new world order, he says, an observation made more pertinent by the financial crisis taking place around the world. And so Mehta urges us, in a way that I thought thoroughly Indian, to kick into an improvisation mode as the world tackles matters of climate, energy and finance, among others.

The first speaker is Commodore Uday Bhaskar, whose abbreviated designation of Cmde leads a South African colleague to ask why he refers to himself as a comrade. He asks the question: One World Order or Many? He invokes Jurgen Habermas to describe the world as made up of 'imagined' communities', and 'involuntary communities with shared risks' to draw attention to the difficulty at the basic level of identifying what constitutes a relevant group, and how 'the people' in the minds of governments, and indeed in fact, signifies no more than government itself, and in a globalised world more probably it signifies multinational corporations.

The task of IBSA is of course to establish a counterweight to the bloc of interests represented by the US, the EU (individually and collectively) and international groupings such as the UN Security Council and the WTO.

So when one talks of a world order, one is in fact talking about many world orders, and one has to question what constitutes 'orderliness'. Looking around the bit of India I've seen it's a question playing itself over and over through my head, as patterns of habitation, transport and trading seem beyond chaotic but they obviously work well enough, even if maybe not ultimately sustainably. Even notions of aesthetics seem irreconcilable. The Commodore launches into a scientific analogy to mess up any answers entirely. Multi-polarity is not a stable state, he says. What he sees is an asymmetric hexagon of power comprising the US, EU, Japan, Russia, China and India,with a possible re-configuration to an "octagon" of power incorporating Brazil and SA as representing regional interests in different continents.

Be that as it may, the central pillar in reconceptualising a world order is in his mind the principle of equitability, and inevitably he invokes Gandhi on the ruler's duty to ensure the wellbeing and harmonious co-existence of 'the people'. Later in the day there's a flutter of conversation about whether democracy should be a criterion for eligibility in any global relationship and how do countries such as India and South Africa deal with China, Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe, for example. There's a general consensus in the room that collective interest is foiled by self-interest, either of individuals or states.

I'm feeling we got caught up in the academic conference instead of the editors' one, but we soon move into less rarefied debate. Bhaskar, and other speakers, are all convinced that the world is at a tipping point, and that the 'societal ozone layer', while generally resilient, will, once breached, unleash local, individualized conflict as the world's sense of security (such as it is) collapses. The role of the media comes under scrutiny too, with a tacit criticism that its selective interpretation of dominant paradigms, and its consumerist embroidering of global narratives, leave the people on the receiving end of those narratives in the dark.

So, again, what's the role of IBSA? Is there even a basis of affinities between the countries? What is the point of a South-South relationship, when it looks likely that the current crisis will lead to a stratification of Norths who may have more logical common interests with any of the IBSA members?

In a later session Former Foreign Secretary Shashank maintained that governments have shifted some of their responsibilities to corporations, and proposes that, as true globalization would mean a world run by about 20 corporations, then with good NGOs and strong civil society it should be possible to convince at least 10 or 12 of those companies to behave responsibly. But that's not a model of a 'rebuilding of the architecture of the new world order' that's likely to get much traction. The key objective must always, he says, be for political leadership to reconcile grassroots needs with national development. For that, a monopoly of financial power by 12% of the world's people, would need to be broken, and perhaps now is the time, he says.

Dr Bibek Debroy, research professor with the CPR, is emphatic that there are signs of new muscle being flexed, and he attributes the collapse of the Doha talks to the collaboration of the BRICSA countries. Negotiations are in ICU, he says, and are not likely to come out, and therefore there will be a need for a sort of WTO-Plus organization to form to get the process moving again.

In the same session on breaking deadlocks, Dr Partha Mukhopadhyay shifted the debate to Climate Change and energy use, arguing that territorially-based self interest is not appropriate to deal with the issue, and that equally it is not appropriate for developing countries to slow down growth to effect climate change. The two opportunities he sees for India are in a radical ramp-up of nuclear energy (he cites the French rate of 40 facilities in 10 years as a good example), and creative town planning as the rate of urbanization in India accelerates. Accept big cities, he says. They're poor and will continue to be; they grow because they are poor, and the relationship between the slums and the middle class makes sense because it makes economic activity affordable. A complicating factor, however, is that there are legal and illegal slums, and the state in India sees no moral obligation to illegal slums in providing services. And even in these slums, conditions are better than in the rural areas.


The final day of deliberations was focused mainly on Indian economic indicators, and an address by Anand Sharma, minister of State for External Affairs. He too celebrated the IBSA initiative as a driving force to realign global powers, and concluded by saying that there will be "a need for mass movements in our countries to counter the cancer of consumerism that is eating at our vitals.'' Nicely put.

And so we await our leaders who will be signing some agreements on Wednesday.


Read the Yves's blog: Day 5

Read Yves's blog from Day 1.


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