Friday, February 22, 2008

Political Violence in Mumbai

Dispute Illustrates One of the Key Issues India Faces

The cell phone rings and my Indian friend’s expression changes. I ask what happened and in a frantic voice he replies, “They are screwing foreigners! They are screwing foreigners!” The driver quickly turns down a new street because the voice on the cell phone says a riot has broken out on one of the main roads we would soon be on. After learning about what was going on, who would have thought that the “foreigners” are actually Indians themselves.

The migration “problem” is interesting for an American to view because whereas in the states it is the illegal international immigrants that garner the dubious honor of receiving the blame, in India it is proper Indians from other states or areas of the country. This causes a huge rift in the nation because after all, India is a constitutional democracy that states “India for all Indians”. However India’s deep rooted history, which includes states warring between states, empires fighting empires, and religions battling religions, has created an atmosphere that is at times state over country.

What did this experience teach me? Well for starters, the importance of internal migration is at the forefront of India’s present and future and India’s rich diversity is not accepted by all within the country. The atmosphere lends itself for unsavory politicians to take advantage of small percentages of the city’s population. For instance, Raj Thackeray, the leader of one of the Maharashtrian parties, provoked and rallied his supporters to literally beat up any North India they found in the city. The news highlights showed taxi drivers ripped out of cars, beaten by ten men, and then their cars broken.

Why is this happening? The core answer is jobs. There is a huge crunch for jobs as India’s population is over 1 billion and unemployment is a pressing issue. With the tremendous growth in the economy cities have become a center for migrants from all around seeking work. One side claims the migrants are taking jobs away from locals and that they are responsible for much of the poverty in the cities. They point to the migrants additional strain on the already overwhelmed public infrastructure and resources, such as energy and water. The migrants argue that they are doing work no locals want, or have shown interest in, and furthermore that their cheap labor keeps prices low for everyone. Lastly, their most important rallying cry, which thankfully has been reiterated in the media and by public officials, is they are Indian and have the right to be there working.

After the turmoil, Raj was arrested and let out on bail despite of the injuries sustained to north Indians, the fear that terrorized the city, and hiccup it caused in the local economy. He has a temporary restraining order against holding rallies or giving strong quotes to media. I doubt this type of punishment will stop future attempts, but one thing is surely evident, many Indians from all across the country have clearly spoken out against Raj and his intentions at causing rifts within Indian society.


Anonymous said...

I read your blog with awe at how calm you are as you witness such enormous tragedies! Stay safe!
I love your infusion of interpretation into your reports.
It seems like the same story in every country about work. There is always an underdog group which becomes associated with cheap labor, who are brought in to do the very hard or unwanted jobs. Then people resent them for stealing the work even though there are few who would do these jobs.
The oppressed struggle with trying to make a life and dont have the power to defend themselves publically. It sounds much more volatile where you are.
We look forward to seeing you and hearing all these stories when you get back, Marco.
Love, Eileen

Graham said...

Corporate Social responsibility indeed. Reliance Industries Limited seems to be making more progress on HIV/AIDS and poverty than government programs.
Does RIL promote their philanthropy in their advertising? Do you see a cultural mandate in India for large corporations to committ to projects such as this? As I talk to my friends from India they often point out to me that the services sector for the top end of the socioeconomic ladder is growing while food producers (farmerers) continue to get the shaft. (i.e. taking out loans with their land as colateral and then ending up killing themselves in instances when the loan cannot be repaid).
What, if any, parallels/links do you see HIV/AIDS, poverty, and the families of these farmers that have committed suicide? I appreciate your insight and I am looking foward to the book. Where are you going next?

Marco Ambrosio said...

Hello Graham,

Reliance actually won the European Union's Golden Peacock award for best Corporate Social Responsibility program in the world. Large corporations are certainly being targeted by the government to get involved and Reliance is their showcase example. That being said Reliance still has work to do in that they are looking into implementing similar type programs at their other sites.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is the future of India. In a meeting with an official from the Bombay Chamber of Commerce it was evident that public-private partnerships are being looked at to address many of India's problems. When I asked her the same question you asked me, she said that the Hindu culture always teaches that you must take care of those who have helped you. In this case the corporations have made billions in India, so they understand they should run CSR type projects to keep good karma and success.

You are correct in that small business, especially farmers, are falling into the borrowing cycle and there has been an increase in farmers committing suicide if they are unable to repay their debts. This is mostly a poverty and development issue, which is definitely a piece of the HIV pandemic, but I did not encounter any direct links. That being said India faces many challenges in regards to development and poverty, and it is the private sector that is going to play the most important role in addressing these issues as effectively as possible. They have the resources and connections to get projects accomplished. For instance, when in Mumbai you will see billboards from corporations reading "Infrastructure will develop India".

In regards to the project, I am in talks with Partners in Health on covering their Rwanda program in late April.