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NAM : Aligning ourselves in the direction of progress

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Globalization is often described as a process whereby the world becomes a smaller place. The notion of space expands tremendously while time can no longer be thought in the singular. There emerges the exciting possibility to exchange both ideas and goods and services across greater distances. These exchanges supposedly foster the creation of a global village, an integrated zone that has the potential to “bring the world together”. The luster of connectedness, progress, and advancement often blurs our vision, stopping us from asking whether the world is indeed becoming a smaller place or whether large multinational corporations are merely growing larger.

Exchange is about give and take. How does giving and taking operate in a framework of immense, persistent global inequality? Within a market, non-coercive, individual acts of exchange take place. The market is an identity-blind and ahistorical zone and so, while the act of exchange takes place, individuals become equal regardless of their social location (gender, caste, ethnicity, etc.) To ensure a fairer, freer market, the job of the government should only be to provide a framework of rules to ensure that these exchanges are voluntary (deregulation, as prescribed by WTO). For a long time, it was held that the fair distribution of income generated through patterns of exchange will eventually trickle down from the rich to the poor in the form of “investment” spending. Today, we’ve replaced the trickle-down theory with the convergence theory, the idea that poorer countries will eventually grow at a faster rate than the rich countries and so, the inequality between the two will diminish as they arrive at a point of convergence. What we observe instead is persistent, resistant global inequality. The richest 62 people in the world can own half the world’s wealth. The gap between the GDP per capita of the United States and that of South Asia has grown by 196% in real terms since 1960. Inequality will not go away on its own with the wildly asymmetric balance of political power in the global economy, including the power to make decisions about where the third world countries align themselves in the direction of progress.

Similar to how a patriarchal family glorifies the caretaking nature of the mother figure, we see powerful international bodies use the rhetoric of comparative advantage to explain how third world countries are using their large populations effectively in production processes to achieve growth and move towards industrialization.  The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization believe that export-based growth is the means to achieve development. The benevolent organizations have prescribed structural adjustment policies for the young, liberalized economies, these policies will “correctly” align the third world on the path of progress. Low resource areas must learn how to numb their populations in horrible, unsafe working conditions, long working hours, and poor wages to attract investment and become more efficient. Where is this growth located, for whom is this growth produced? These questions are irrelevant as they cannot operate within the identity blind and ahistorical world that is the market as understood by the superpowers.

Within the mainstream economic discourse, sweatshop labor is defended on two major accounts: that the workers make a non-coercive choice to work in sweatshops and that their wellbeing must be adjudged by comparing them to their next best alternative, which would make them worse off. The example of the Harkin Bill serves as the most fascinating defense. In 1992, Senator Tom Harkin passed a bill to ban the importation of all commodities that used child labor to the United States. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) was forced to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with UNICEF and the International Labour Organization in July 1995. Consequently, more than 50,000 children (close to 75% of the total workforce of the textile industry) were fired overnight from garment factories. Children were forced to resort to more dangerous and/or less lucrative employment in the informal sector. In severe cases, the children had to resort to prostitution, begging, and starvation.

We are left with violent rationalizations. The economy seemingly operates much like a machine and self-interest and competition is the fuel that it feeds on. And, the market bestows rational individuals with choice. You can choose between selling your body and working in a sweatshop.

“Make in India” will take India in the direction of change, the kind that will take us forward. (Mera desh badal raha hain, aage bad raha hain). We will attract foreign investment, foreign companies will come and manufacture in India, creating jobs, adding to the country’s GDP.  Around 54 amendments have been made to the “Factories Act, 194”, the “Apprenticeship Act, 1961”, and the “Labor Laws Act, 1988” through which the overtime hours were doubled from 50 hours per quarter to 100 hours. The employers will no longer be held liable to imprisonment for violating the Apprenticeship Act. The state government in Rajasthan went a step further as to introduce amendments in the “Industrial Dispute Act”, “Factory Act” and “Contract Labor Regulation & Abolition Act.” bestowing employers with the right to retrench workers from 100 to 300 without necessitating government approval. Thereby, workers will not be able to organize themselves to raise collective demands through trade unions. The recently introduced “Child Labour” bill will allow children to take part in home based work. Furthermore, children between the age of 14 to 18 are defined as adolescents who are allowed to be a part of any profession. It is not too difficult to draw a pattern between the progress we wish to achieve and the necessary direction we are moving towards to achieve this progress.

The Non-Aligned Movement challenged the hegemonic influence of the superpowers during the Cold War era. It built a sense of solidarity between independent, third world countries who refused to adhere to the puppet regimes of the Western world, the colonizers and imperialists. While our prime minister is known for travelling across countries to build cordial relations and attract foreign investment, he could not attend the meeting that took place in Venezuela.

Where do we align ourselves at this moment? Where is progress located? Who’s progress do we work towards?

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