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A moment of truth

It’s dark days ahead for those who believe in a ‘humane’ market economy. Rajni Bakshi writes.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2010 22:05 IST

Sometimes the juxtaposition of certain news items is sharply ironic. Recently a business paper carried a column illuminating the nuances of what the Maoists actually seek — development of irrigation, small agricultural industries and treasury bonds to mobilise capital for this and much more.

On the right side of the column was an interview with Vijay Mahajan, veteran development worker, a pioneer of for-profit micro-finance and a dynamic promoter of financial inclusion.

Here are two radically different approaches to the same problem and a similar goal. The problem is the lack of capital and other productive resources among those at the bottom of the economic ladder. The goal is social and economic equity.

The Maoists looked at the local moneylender, with his usurious interest rates, and decided to eliminate him. Some development workers looked at the same moneylender and decided to price him out of the market by creating cheaper avenues of micro-finance.

The Maoists visualise a classless society. Votaries of micro-finance think that may not be possible but the market economy, and even capitalist accumulation, can be given a human face. Yet the irony is that such change-makers might be taking on a subtler and greater moral hazard than the Maoists.

To fight and kill, or die, for a utopian ideal is relatively straightforward. It is quite another matter, a far more complicated challenge, to take your dreams of an egalitarian and fairer society and plunge into the fray determined to alter the status quo from within.

Muhammad Yunus is a prime example of someone who turned the business of banking inside out, making it accessible to the poorest. Micro-finance is merely the most obvious form of enterprise that seeks to marry market tools with social goals of equity. Others are doing the same in the sphere of water, energy, livelihood generation, sanitation, education and much more.

In addition, Northern countries have witnessed the rise of Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), now a $3-trillion phenomenon that is spreading in Asia. India’s National Stock Exchange now has an ESG (environmental, social, governance) index to monitor the performance of companies in more than monetary terms.

Underlying all these developments is a raw faith — that a 21st century model of industrialisation and market economy is in the process of being forged. And, as it develops further, this model will be more socially just and ecologically sound than the industrialisation and capitalism, which emerged in the 19th century and gave us a particular model of growth in the 20th century.

But meanwhile brute force continues to be used to push through old-style growth in much of India. The Centre and states continue to ignore reports which show that improving the delivery of democratic entitlements, protecting people from being brutally displaced, ensuring equitable access to market opportunities, is the surest antidote to Maoist insurgency.

Unless we succeed in pushing for the implementation of these solutions it will continue to seem as though the unfolding tragedy is a three-way fight among government, insurgents and human rights activists. It is not.

There is a fourth corner to this imbroglio occupied by those who believe that Indian democracy and a certain kind of market economy can eliminate centuries of injustice.

This dream cannot be fulfilled by just promoting socially responsible enterprises and financial inclusion. It demands that we also organise resistance to brute force in all its varied forms — whether from the barrel of a Maoist gun, a government paramilitary force or a private company’s bulldozers.

Escalating violence against citizens — by the government, the Maoists and private companies — is above all a moment of truth for all those who are in that fourth corner.

Rajni Bakshi is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Aug 11, 2010 22:04 IST