17 07 2006
Divide et Impera
An Interview with Arundhati Roy
WIO: Bangalore is actually one of the few cities which became a verb “to bangalore” – meaning the digital outsourcing of labour into other regions. What do you think of this symbolic quality of information technology, as it is in a way promoted by the government and IT corporations here in Bangalore?
A: Until recently Hyderabad was considered cyber city and the chief minister was referring to himself as a CEO and, both in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh they were the sort of blue eyed target of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and in general the whole project of Neo Liberalism. It’s very important to understand that this project only has success because it does benefit some people. That’s how it creates it’s base and obviously Bangalore is one of the sites of it’s supposed success. And both in Bangalore and in a city like Hyderabad and recently in Calcutta and Chennai too, the effort is put on creating secured zones, where you’re securing yourself in an international island of privilege, in a sea of local despair. All this is part of the old question: “Who pays – who profits.” Here you have a situation where even the collaboration between the corporations and the state isn’t new. It’s never been new. Even the people who are at the forefront of the cacophony of the free market are people who’s own enterprises are entirely subsidized by the state! For example: the IT-industry in Bangalore. The reason that they are given all this very valuable urban land on a completely subsidized basis is that they promised to provide jobs. But jobs for whom? Once again for the elite of India! We saw a lovely presentation yesterday of how these IT-corporates in Bangalore are colluding with the state to delegitimize, to push out the poor of a city like Bangalore. But those same people are at the forefront of a framing policy that wants to urbanize India. They say that agriculture will only be commercially viable if we have only 20 million people involved in agriculture instead of 700 million people – the rest must go to cities. So the people are being pushed out of villages and they’re also being pushed out of cities.
WIO: Is this seen also an aspiration of the Indian middle class to be part of that process? There seems to be increasingly conflict and antagonism even within the bubble – just 2 weeks ago there was this conflict between the politicians and the CEO of Infosys, the biggest IT corporation here in Bangalore. And then, on another level one gets the feeling, that the euphoria of the middle class in the cities is also slightly subdued.
A: Absolutely. Certainly this doesn’t mean that all urban areas are areas of privilege but rather within those urban areas, there are bubbles of privilege. Because obviously cities are going to be the sites of the largest kinds of conflict. Which may not necessarily be progressive political conflict – it may be just criminal outburst. And it may just take the form of violence of poor on poor or black on black like in western cities. However, the reality looks like this: 400.000 people will be evicted just over night! In cities like Bombay and the same thing happens in Delhi. This whole process of corporatization seeks to take away the key decision making from politicians. You see, however much we like to vilify politicians, at the end of the day those guys have to go out and get votes. But the corporations don’t! I found it quite funny when someone in the audience [at the conference] who obviously wasn’t from India said something about elections being the last monument to democracy. Here in India elections have turned into a kind of circus where there isn’t any party ideology anymore, there is only a governing ideology and an opposition ideology. So, depending on whether you’re in the government or in the opposition you say different things. The Congress came to power this election, promising to deal with this neo liberal policy and the policy of privatization. But then the minute they came to power, they hadn’t even named the people who were going to be ministers or even who was going to be prime minister, stocks started falling and spokesmen had to come out and reassure the people that they were not going to radically change the economic policy. I think you have to have new ways and new tools of looking at what’s going on politically.
WIO: What has also been addressed at this conference was the notion about the use of technology as a tool of social sorting. Do you think there are analogies to the phenomenon of gated communities? I have seen gated communities here, which seemed very much alike to those in the US.
A: In Bangalore I believe there is in fact a motto among developer and architects: “We guarantee to settle you abroad”, meaning, we guarantee you that, the place we build won’t look anything like India.
WIO: Bangalore prides itself to be also a city of Biotechnology. We can observe some kind of fusion between Information Technology and Biotechnology, while at the same time India was a target of bio piracy. Some of the most famous cases are from here. What is more, recently there was a patent bill amendment which actually had a big effect on the status of the generic pharma industry in this country. How do you see the developments coming from there?
A: The thing is that in all these issues we need to stop thinking along national borders. There rather is a collusion of elites and what is profitable for the Indian elite can also be profitable for the American elite. What it actually comes down to is the question: “How do you put down the revolt in the servant’s quarters?” This is similar to colonial power structures in India – how many white British people were there? A few thousand. The only way they governed this country was because they had the collusion of elites. This wasn’t the case in other colonies, like in West Africa, or in the Americas, there genocide was often a precursor to colonialism. It didn’t happen here, because we already had a highly hierarchal society. We already had a feudal society, whose differences are now only cemented by all this information technology and globalization processes.
WIO: You were saying that a lot of this IT-hype in some of the cities you were mentioning is actually on the expense of the rural populations. But then again I understand that there is a big governmental effort to actually introduce IT into the rural landscape with the argument that this would help better farming and provide weather and market information. I’m aware that there is a high level of an information gap in the sense of a digital divide. How could that work?
A: I think it’s important for them to introduce IT into rural areas for exactly the same reasons that it was important for colonial governments to introduce the railways and the roads. Because if you think it actually was about enabling people to travel – it wasn’t. It was to enable the extraction of raw material, take it to the ports and then take it out of the land. In the same way we have seen the connection between IT – between being networked and surveillance. There is this huge effort at corporatization of agricultural land as well as the question of the privatization of seeds. The government plans to pass a Seeds-Act which will make it impossible for farmers to trade their own seeds. It will allow the government’s security forces to raid the house of any farmer and arrest them if they have unaccounted seeds. You know that like in all third world cities 70 % of the city here is illegal and at the mercy of a kind of network of corruption. They will transfer this situation into rural areas where the majority of the population of this country will be living on sufferance because everyone will be illegal. You will be forced to be illegal: either pirate seeds or trade illegally in both cases risking arrest. In such situation it is very important for the government to have identity cards and surveillance, simply to know what is going on because right now there’s anarchy, in a way which is wonderful.
WIO: Does the introduction of IT to the rural landscapes have visible effects like settlements being regrouped or transformed through this? The farmers here on the margins of the city, they are not digitally connected and it has an effect on their lives: their land is being categorized which actually is a way to expropriate them.
A: This is exactly what is happening. You can see this even here. If you go outside from the conference hall you see the people who are the cleaners and all the others sitting on the steps in their khaki nylon saris and you wonder: the fact is that their lives are being micromanaged by what’s going on inside [at the conference] but they have no idea. And the fact is, that this means a loss of a target for them. How do you conduct a resistance when you don’t know who is the target? Or when the target is a cable? Can you be angry with a cable? Can you be angry with a camera? Who do you vent your rage against? Who do you plot against?
WIO: That is an urgent question for social activists right now: what sort of resistance can there be against this sort of IT-enforced neo liberal religion. Does it make sense to go out on the streets these days? Are the streets locales of power?
A: Or isn’t it rather: have they learned that every time people go out on the streets, the government just waits. They know that such a day is a holiday and tomorrow will be a working day again. The second strategy is not new: buying off the key players, or the key trouble makers, seducing them out off the resistance movement or killing them. Coming back to what I was saying about strategies of resistance, violent resistance is met with extreme violence by the state. But non-violent resistance is just chucked over into the bin. If we are just bound into this space where our only strategy can be subversion, then let’s subvert big time! However, when we’re talking about surveillance – if you go to Kashmir, people just laugh about our problems when being photographed or filmed, because there it’s like you can’t move even 5 kilometers without having an AK47 in your face. There isn’t a single Kashmerian boy who hasn’t had the hell beaten out of him every week or so. How do you control this society? You control it by creating a new class. Today government says: “Let’s create a corporate elite. Let’s create divisions between them, that the battles they are fighting now, will seem like old ones to them.”