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India in the face of globalisation

Rajeev Bhargava
26 February 2003

See also:

- The Asian Social Forum: a new public space
Kamal Chenoy

- The World Social Forum 2003: a personal impression
Achin Vanaik

What impressions do ordinary people have of globalisation? How is it experienced by them? What do they think of this process and how do they interpret its impact on their lives?

An open space where activists across the world meet to discuss globalisation and its consequences is an ideal setting to seek and secure answers to these questions. I envy my friends, Achin Vanaik and Kamal Chenoy who attended the World Social Forum (WSF) at Porto Alegre and the Asian Social Forum (ASF) at Hyderabad.

Though I could not go there, I did manage to attend a relatively smaller, more highbrow meeting on the social impact of globalisation, organised by an independent body set up by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation brought together around a hundred Indians – academics, writers, painters, activists, industrialists, bureaucrats, politicians, journalists and trade unionists. We were asked to split into manageable groups where we addressed the above, urgent questions.

Three views of globalisation

There are three familiar responses to globalisation. First, that its novelty is grossly exaggerated. Globalisation, the argument runs, has been around for a long time. The current phase is merely an intensification of a well-entrenched process, the basic features of which are much the same as before.

The second response is that globalisation is not only novel but extensive, leaving nothing untouched, transforming everything within its reach. Therefore, it must be treated as the central organising category of contemporary discourse. When evaluated, this response branches into two further sub-responses: either globalisation (over-optimistically) is a panacea for all the problems of the world, or (over-pessimistically) it is the cause of all its maladies.

The third response is an intermediate one, which sees globalisation as introducing new structures without altogether displacing older patterns. From this point of view, globalisation is a dynamic, open-ended and contradictory process that generates forces working in different, often opposite directions.

A few winners, many losers

In discussing these different approaches, most participants in my group agreed that globalisation had introduced to India new technology and economic opportunities, and greater sensitivity to efficiency. But, surprisingly, a consensus also emerged that it produces massive problems.

Almost everyone voiced concern over its impact on employment. Unemployment had risen steeply. Equally significant was the deterioration in the quality of jobs. Thus, along with exclusion from the economy, it was felt that globalisation brings with it what one participant called ‘negative inclusion’.

Exclusion from the economy was accompanied by exclusion from whatever little public space was available for deliberation and negotiation. A corollary of this is that globalisation has a negative impact on participation, access, transparency, and accountability. In short, most people in the session expressed concern about the adverse impact of globalisation on democracy.

This is not to say that globalisation has no beneficiaries. The point is rather that it has differential impact on different categories of people. Plainly, globalisation throws up winners and losers. Generally, big businessmen, professionals and the young living in cities benefit from it; the rest lose.

The percentage figure of winners mentioned by a participant in the session was abysmally low: a mere 3% of the population! Those who suffer most, it was agreed, are Dalits, tribals, women, poor peasants, unorganised workers and minority populations. Globalisation, in short, increases economic and political inequalities.

A world connected, and divided

On the relationship between globalisation and culture, it was agreed that globalisation estranged family members from each other, encouraged egoism and a consequent loss of compassion, and has a propensity to alter the very manner in which we sense the world.

Even more importantly, by forging new communities with transnational links, it undermines older, more inclusive varieties of nationalism. There is a possible link then between globalisation and the resurgence of communalism in India. Even those who welcome global culture were worried about the rapid pace at which it spreads, in a way that undermines freedom of choice.

Overall then, the assessment of globalisation was negative – closer even to the second, pessimistic view than to the third, more ambivalent one that I personally favour. For large parts of the world, globalisation creates not a borderless world but one where territories retain their significance as before.

It presents a contradictory face: a much easier flow and spread of ideas, experiences, objects and people from one particular part of the globe to another; yet a divided world, thrown together rather than integrated, in a manner heavily biased in favour of rich, dominant countries.

So, globalisation has to be combated, tamed or at least given a more human face. Whether this can be done and how successful this project is will depend largely on how far the left, naturally prone to fragmentation, can regroup under forums such as the WSF and ASF.

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