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Red Spider, Black Spider Redux

Sham Wrestling at the World Economic Forum

by P. SAINATH

The comforting thing about those sham wrestling ‘championships’ on television is that everybody knows they are a farce. Steroid-stuffed Cro-Magnons  stomp the living daylights out of  painkiller-primed  Neanderthals.  Good, unclean fun. The results are safely predictable. You should expect the 600-pound gorilla to overwhelm the 900-pound one in a staggering twist of fortune (after the bets have been laid). But audience, organizers, fighters all know the fighting is rigged and everyone’s happy.

There were many, pre-television Indian symbols of this honourable tradition. As school kids we cheered wildly as Black Spider brutally crushed Red Spider’s brother in an open-air bout. The roaring crowd dispersed only after Red Spider jumped into the ring to promise us he would throttle  Black Spider in a revenge match the next week, so buy your tickets in advance. (He then toddled off to dinner with Black Spider). At age 8, it was magical.

Decades later, television has given sham ‘wrestling’ giant audiences, made it more spectacular, but perhaps less convincing. (The close ups are a dead giveaway). But almost  everybody  still knows what to take seriously and what not to.  That, and the fact that they entertain more people, is what demarcates the world wrestling extravaganzas from the world economic forum. (Both, otherwise, fully corporate enterprises). The wrestling corporations take the money seriously. The World Economic forum takes itself seriously, besides the money.

The WEF’s first ever summit in Mumbai ended on December 14. Its main organizer was the Confederation of Indian Industry. But both Central and state  governments turned out in “support.” The chief ministers of Maharashtra and Kerala (both states reporting rising farm suicides) hosted  ‘cultural evenings’  and / or expensive dinners for this billionaires’ club, besides  other forms of ‘support.’  The WEF’s May 31 press release announcing Mumbai as the venue, had this mysterious line: “The Summit will return to New Delhi in 2012 and 2014 in time for India’s next national election.” Wow, is the WEF running for office? And why shift from Delhi to Mumbai? Was it embarrassing for a government drowning in corporate corruption and scams to “host” the corporate world’s Croesus Club in the capital?

And so, governments that cannot add a few hundred rupees  per quintal to desperate paddy or cotton growers find the means to subsidize the global billionaire fraternity. Union ministers and Chief Ministers came down to the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai  to reaffirm support.

But why? What exactly does WEF deliver to India? Or anybody? Have they brought you staggering investments? Unlike the sham wrestling world,  the WEF can predict nothing safely. (And they’re hardly entertaining). When did this crowd  ever get anything right? Did they warn you of the 2008 meltdown or the Euroquake? (They did grimly observe in Mumbai that Europe is in trouble. Gee. The rest of us would never have suspected that).

Dean Baker puts it  well: “Economic forecasters are not workers like dishwashers and cab drivers who are held accountable for the quality of their work. They can be wrong every day about everything and face little risk to their career prospects.” (CounterPunch August 25, 2011).

However, by WEF standards, the Mumbai show was a bit subdued. The US and, Europe are reeling in crisis driven by the very economics the WEF stands for. India was  still rising but not shining. Even the Planning Commission-driven India Human Development Report admits: “the average percentage of undernourished children under five years for 26 Sub-Saharan African countries was 25 per cent, about half the Indian average of 46 per cent. Weight and height of Indians on average have not shown significant improvement over the last 25 years.”

India’s rank in the 2011  Global Hunger Index, at 67 out of 81, places us seven notches below  Rwanda which apparently handles food security better.  We’re also below Sri Lanka (ranked 36), Nepal (54) and Pakistan (59). The  GHI 2011 states flatly that its data  “does not reflect the impacts of the 2010-11 food price crisis.”

And  the country gracing the top five when it comes to dollar billionaires now ranks 134th in the 2011 UN Human Development Report. Our 55 billionaires multiplied their wealth at an astonishing rate in the post-1991 era. And there’s the India story: the consciously constructed, ruthlessly engineered inequality of it. Just see our HDI Value in the UNHDR. It reads 0.548. Adjusted for inequality this value falls close to 30 per cent. India’s ‘multi-dimensionally poor’  now exceed 612 million., as the report shows us.

But debates over India’s dismal performance in giving its people the basic minimums  always evade the policy framework of the past 20 years that has driven such levels of inequality. You can blame ‘tardy implementation,’  ‘poor delivery,’  anything  —  except the policies that have devastated hundreds of millions of poor Indians. And, of course, there is not even censure for the top guns and whizz kids.

As Baker points out, for this kind of group, there are no bad consequences. If you think that disastrous failures would hurt their record “then you don’t understand economic forecasting. There is no reason to believe that forecasters are any more knowledgeable about the economy today than they were four or five years ago.”

Need a good Indian illustration of this? Take Planning Commission deputy chief Montek Ahluwalia and Finance Ministry Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu and their multiple predictions on the economy, particularly on inflation.  (Which, says CRISIL, forced Indians to spend close billions extra in 36 months). With inflation close to double digits and food inflation at 10.63 per cent, they now admit, sort of, that we were, ahem, not quite as right as we are normally known to be.  But we will, umm.. probably will return to being right in the near future. Dr. Ahluwalia even admits to credibility issues popping up.  “It is true that we were hoping that this (moderation in inflation) will happen earlier, to that extent our credibility becomes a question.” (The Times of India Nov. 21, 2011).  And Dr Ahluwalia straightaway makes another prediction —  “inflationary pressure would ease from the beginning of next year.”  Dr. Basu believes it will start declining in December itself.  If in February, says Dr. Ahluwalia, the data show that “inflation is not coming down by then, then we really don’t know what we are doing.” India’s human development indicators suggest they haven’t a clue about what they were doing for 20 years. That, however, is not so. They knew what they were doing. Constructing a world based on a trickle-down, greed-is-good, inequality-helps philosophy. It made things much worse, though not for the authors of the mess.

The WEF has gone. This time, they did not get the kind of publicity to which they are accustomed. This brings us to the media. Who has been paying for, or heavily subsidizing, the large contingents of Indian media that do the Davos Drool each year? Answer: Indian industry, which likes to have its cheerleading team along. Some of the rent-a-report  crowd are from media outlets which will not spend a few thousand rupees to send a journalist to cover huge issues of hunger within the country. Switzerland is an expensive place. And Davos is at its costliest in the WEF season. Yet several Indian journalists seem to afford it.

Quite a few have had their costs, including air travel and more, covered by industry lobbies, many of whose members are major advertisers and a big source of media revenue. There are newspapers that have given Davos summits far more coverage than they have the most vital bills before Parliament. There are channels that have had ‘partnerships’  with CII and WEF to cover Davos (always euphorically). Strong and rigid rules are issued to journalists on how to report. One such instruction: “Please note we cannot say “WEF”…it is the World Economic Forum and one is not allowed to call it otherwise.” Wonder why? Does the acronym WEF sound too much like one of the sham wrestling outfits? Another fatwa from a television group: “the following programming from CII has to be incorporated in the programming of all channels.”

Surely the audiences watching the completely uncritical coverage of the WEF, have a right to be told that the content was sponsored? When the funding is not clearly stated, when the content heavily favors the sponsor, when criticism is unknown, when correspondents are told how to fulfill their duties to their “partners’  —  this is what is called Paid News. But there is a pact of silence about this. A fine example of  the kind of ‘self-regulation’ that media bosses have in mind? The organisers, lobbies, funders, the media  —  all know what’s happening. But not, in this case, the audiences, readers or viewers. Where are you, Black Spider and Red Spider ? All is forgiven, come home.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.