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India’s Fragile New Temples

The world economy will grow in 2009, but only barely, according to the International Monetary Fund. The global growth figure they came up with, 0.5 percent, would have been sharply negative were it not for two national economies: India’s and China’s, both of which are expected to keep expanding briskly, if not quite as fast as in recent years.

Here on the ground in India, that growth is wrecking the country’s present without building a solid future to replace it. January was a very bad news month here in the southern city of Hyderabad. The local and national press were riveted by the collapse of software giant Satyam (“India’s Enron”), whose founding family had allegedly committed fraud on a majestic scale. Some government officials are accused of turning blind eyes toward Satyam for seven years; as one insider told the press, company chairman Ramalinga Raju “was too big a guy in 2002. He was the face of the emerging Hyderabad.”

The crash of Satyam will take with it an ambitious plan to establish metro-rail service in a city that suffers from ever-worsening traffic pollution. The system was to have been built by Maytas, a “green” company created by Satyam in its mirror image. But it’s looking as if Maytas is similarly riddled with financial disease.

Other bad-news items gave warning that just when Hyderabad’s post-2000 high-tech image is taking on the character of an optical illusion, its very real biological, physical, and cultural foundations are cracking badly.

From market to mall

On Jan. 30, the city announced plans to demolish the century-and-a-half-old Monda Market, a vast maze of shops, stone pavement, and canopies, most of it occupied by a magnificent seven-acre bazaar claiming to be Asia’s largest vegetable market. This is no tourist attraction;  rather, it’s thronged daily by local shoppers looking for inexpensive vegetables, fruit, meat, spices, dry beans, grains, pots and pans, brooms, even washboards.

Some vendors sit on shaded platforms, surrounded by baskets or pyramids of tomatoes, onions, okra, or any of hundreds of other species of vegetable and fruit. Others have just a few potatoes to display on a small square of burlap on the pavement. They pay the city 10 to 100 rupees per month rent for the space (equivalent of $0.70 to $7.00 in purchasing-power terms) . A few own their shops outright.

Microsoft and Google, as well as Satyam and a host of other Indian infotech companies, have transformed the western fringe of Hyderabad. But the area around this market in the “twin city” of Secunderabad to the northeast remains the domain of small local businesses, much as it was when I first came here in 1980. The city government, apparently embarrassed by the contrast, wants to build a multi-level shopping complex where Monda Market now stands.

Few details on the planned shopping center have been provided (one that has been: 35 percent of the space will be devoted to a parking garage), but officials have reassured the market’s current tenants that there will be space for everyone in the new facility. It’s hard to see how that will work. The plan, more than likely, is to clone the glittering hyper-malls that have sprouted like garish artificial flowers elsewhere in the city.

Produce-selling just won’t work in that kind of environment. People go to Monda Market because they are buying directly (or one person removed) from the source and therefore get fresh food cheaply.  Vendors are certain that even if they manage somehow to survive economically while they’re put out of action during construction, they’ll have to pay much higher rent in the mall. Therefore, they will have to charge higher prices and will be competing with corporate supermarkets like Food World, one or more of which will doubtless move into the mall as well. The logistics of getting the great tonnages of produce in and out of the complex are hard to picture. The vast butchering halls and fish markets, let alone the live poultry, will certainly be shut out.

When news of the city’s plan came out, the market’s entire tenant population went out on a one-day strike. The following day, with Monda Market back to its bustling self,  my wife Priti and I went through every lane, and could find no one who was happy about the prospect of a food mega-mall.

Speaking in Hyderabad’s characteristic combination of the fraternal-twin languages Hindi and Urdu, a man who operates a dried-fish stall told Priti, “This market was built 150 years ago — by your people! [actually, it was the British]. This has been our shop since my grandfather’s time. The city gave us no notice, no nothing. Thousands of shops, thousands of people are here. Where are they all going to go?”

A woman sitting against a wall selling greens, a spot she has occupied for years, agreed: “It’s nice here. Don’t make something and give to us. This is how we like it. This is how I have lived, how my parents lived, how we eat.”

A man selling leaves and paste for making paan, India’s favorite chew, said, “This is what we are used to — the small business we have.  Every day, we earn and we eat. For us to live, this is all we need. If they uproot us, we won’t be able to make it.  I sell 100 leaves for 20 rupees. Maybe I’ll have to sell them for 30 then.” He paused to tie up a roll of leaves for a customer.  “All these families have been here 40 or 50 years. Suddenly it will all change. We don’t want big shops. Whatever capacity we have, we can work within that. But the loyalty has all shifted to these Reliance supermarket people with their packaged food.”

The final decision on Monda Market’s fate will come in the next few weeks.

The sacrifice zone

Citing a study published in 2007 by a team of scientists at University of Gothenburg in Sweden, the Associated Press reported Jan. 25 that water supplies west of Hyderabad, near the suburban town of Patancheru, are heavily laced with antibiotics, antihistamines, and 19 other drugs.[1] With 90 bulk drug manufacturers packed into it, that one watershed accounts for up to 40 percent of India’s bulk drug production, with much of the output exported to the US and other countries.

When I was writing about Patancheru’s pollution in 2005 and 2007 [2], the area had been suffering from awful water quality and widespread health complaints for years. It had been finally been declared a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) because, according to critics, it was already so permeated with pollution that it made a good site for more dirty industry.  At that time, the Swedes’ study had not yet been published. It was long known that the area was drenched in pollution by chemicals, solvents, and other, unidentified stuff. But no one suspected that it was now an open-air laboratory for breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The quantity of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin being discharged daily into a single stream is enough to treat a city of 90,000, at the highest concentrations ever recorded in effluents. The local population is being treated as well with record levels of remedies for other maladies they don’t have (yet), including ulcers, high blood pressure, and allergies.  Overmedicated patients in America are inflating the demand for drugs that can have serious side effects on the other side of the globe.

Now that the international press, and some Indian papers, have finally made an issue of the dirty drug-export business in Patancheru, Hyderabad’s environmental activists are once again demanding a crackdown on the drugmakers and their suppliers and customers. But the local environment will never again be as it was. Patancheru’s SEZ has become a Sacrificed Ecosystem Zone.

Slumwrecking millionaires

Monda Market is only one of a myriad Indian communities being modernized out of existence. Bhimraobada, a three-acre slum in central Hyderabad, is not Mumbai’s vast Dharavi slum — scenes of which have been horrifying viewers of the film Slumdog Millionaire around the globe – nor did it have the film’s happily-ever-after end. Instead, late on the night of Dec. 27, families who have lived in Bhimraobada for many decades heard bulldozers come crashing through. They fled, and by morning, all 83 homes were flattened, reportedly to make way for expansion of the local Congress Party offices. The ousted families were supposed to be provided housing in another area, but complained that what they were being offered were windowless concrete cells with no water or electricity. They have refused to go, and the battle for their home turf continues.

India’s breakneck growth has meant that proven, durable institutions have been wiped out overnight to make way for glass, plastic, and concrete mercantile temples that are, in reality, more highly perishable than fresh tomatoes. It is shocking that all of that can lie hidden behind a single number like gross domestic product or annual global growth.

STAN COX lived in Hyderabad in the early 80s and late 90s. He is author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (2008), which was republished last month by HarperCollins-India.

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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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