Sunday, October 09, 2011

Lessons from “Occupy Wall Street” movement for India

In the past three weeks or so, what started as a protest by few young people against abusive practices by financial institutions in the U.S. has grown into a large movement across many major cities. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is demanding social rights and justice for most Americans – 99% of the population – who they say are oppressed by the rich and the powerful 1%.
OWS movement points out the wide disparity in income and wealth between the few rich and the rest of the nation. They believe that it was the financial institutions in the U.S. that caused the global financial melt-down and the deep economic recession in the U.S. Yet these same institutions are using their political influence to prevent any regulatory legislation being enacted by the U.S. Congress that would curtail the practices they were engaged in . Further, they point out that those executives who were responsible for these financial institutions and their harmful practices have not been brought to justice.
If these allegations are true, then we are talking about corruption and unfair use of financial power by the corporate sector to influence policy and to continue practices that unfairly benefit them at the expense of the rest of the country. If recent opinion polls are correct, a majority of Americans agree with this assertion, and believe that these powerful companies who were beneficiaries of government bail-out with tax dollars should be held more accountable for their actions.
What is different about the OWS movement is that it is the first time the general public has risen up against the private sector. In most countries including India, widespread protests have always been against the government. The assumption in those cases is that it is the government officials who are corrupt, and the private sector simply plays to that for their own benefit.
In India, in the past few months, the Hazare movement gained strength from public discontent over corruption in government. Surprisingly, political leaders of the country tried to discredit the movement, arguing that the anti-corruption movement was demanding certain changes in government practices that only the parliament has the power to decide. True, it is the parliament that makes laws, but their members are not independent of the will and wishes of the people. A country that was born from the non-violent struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi for a just cause was told by its leaders that the peaceful protest against corruption was unconstitutional and hence, their leader Hazare was arrested.
It is hard to be truthful about corruption, but let us try. In India, corruption is at all levels of the society, and it has been in existence for a long time. What is different now from before is that corruption has increased dramatically over the years, and the money involved is far greater. For example, a State minister would, as a general practice, demand 10-20% of a public works project for road construction for Rs. 500 crores, and the private contractor would arrange to deliver it in “black” money – cash. I wonder how so much money, and often more, can be taken in cash and delivered to someone in person!
Are our political leaders and investigative agencies unaware of these common practices? Are the courts incapable of prosecuting such cases? The answers to both questions are a resounding “no.” Yet, very little is done to end these terrible practices.
Corruption in India is simply a reflection of how the society lives every day. Corruption is an accepted fact of life. The rich have very little incentive to end it, as they unfairly benefit from it. Their power of money can buy anything and everyone, including courts. Justice is the same as power.
Most politicians and bureaucrats are what they are because many citizens are what they are -- corrupt. The people have empowered their rulers to do what they want without accountability. As a result, the very rich – the 1% minority – is able to get richer unfairly at the expense of others.
For this system to continue, the rich have to appear as benevolent to the poor. Hence, many donate small amounts for social causes. Some start Corporate Social Responsibility departments in their companies while engaging in serious corruptive practices. This game is smartly played.
So, the lesson from OWS movement is this. Corruption will remain as long as the private sector, mainly large companies, is allowed to continue benefitting from it. Simply asking politicians and bureaucrats to be accountable and transparent might help a little, but they will find other ways to circumvent the new laws, if ever enacted, to reduce corruption. What is needed is a movement against those who cause corruption in the first place.
India must create strong, independent press free of religious leaders and politicians. Courts must be brought under scrutiny. All major private sector dealings with the government must be investigated without curtailing business activity.
Every individual who holds important government or private position must be required by the revenue department to disclose his or her wealth, income, and sources of income . Their immediate family members should be required to do the same. They need to explain how their financial figures and sources have changed over each year. The investigative agencies need to monitor them without harassing anyone, and bring about accountability through just prosecution of illegal activities.
I am told by some of my friends that this article might offend the same constituency that I am seeking support from for Shanti Bhavan. I respect that observation, but I also feel that it is not a good enough reason for me not to speak out. After all, not every wealthy person or corporation is corrupt. I am sure those who see fairness will stand in the support of a just cause.

Abraham M. George

1 comment:

Edu said...

Dear Dr George, It's always a pleasure to read your articles.

These days I’ve been watching with interest the OWS movement. For several months, specifically since March 15, in Spain we have similar protests (15M movement). I have participated sporadically in the camps of Girona and Barcelona.

Next October 15, citizens will again take to the streets in an international mobilization. Until now, 630 cities are participating, in 67 countries (included Mumbai and Pune).

Yesterday I read that there is an Occupy Mumbai movement. Here you have their website:

They say that they are an offshoot of the OWS movement, but it seems that they are protesting only against the Indian government, but not against the private sector and the powerful companies. It seems contradictory.

Corruption in India is a major problem, and as far as I know, it's a problem that affects all social levels. I hope these peaceful protests against corruption have some effect, although to be honest, I'm not very optimistic.