August 15, 1998, The Kathmandu Post, republished in the Nepal Digest
As the lights of Bombay flashes by the windows of the taxi, the man behind me inquires: What conference are you attending? I try to conceptualize an answer that will be comprehensible to him. I am going to the Eight National Conference of Women's Studies in Pune, I say. I see him struggling with this new concept: a young woman involved in the workforce in a way that he cannot envision.
A young South Asian woman travelling alone to attend a conference. And what does this conference discuss, he asks politely. You talk about women's status? Empowerment? Well, it's a little bit more complex than that, I answer. We are going to be talking about issues of livelihood, ecology, representations, Structural Adjustment Policies, the New Liberal Economic Policy.
"Oh, you mean Enron." He says, his friendly demeanour changing to hostility. "Those feminists stopped the Enron project and it causes 20 millions in delay, but it will happen anyway. How will the nation develop with people like them? We need industry. A few lakh people will be displaced, but its inevitable. What's the problem?"
Later, as I sit through three days of speakers, academics, activists, I hear references to the new liberal economic policies, fears about the introduction of transnational corporations and papers that discuss the impacts of these policies on the national economies of South Asia, a countless number of times. I realise that there is a basic shared assumption with the man in the taxi: that the New Liberal Economic Policy, privatization and globalization has impacted "national development" in fundamental ways.
For many at the conference, India's move to privatize state industries and to move away from trade protectionism is leading towards an unsustainable model of development. The new economy, based on export crops and the cutting off of subsidies to small farmers, is seen to be a system of commodity production and exchange that marginalizes substantial numbers of people.
Sharad Fernando from Sri Lanka drew a direct link between the Structural Adjustment Policy in Sri Lanka and the ethnic conflict by talking about how the restructuring of the economy forced small farmers off their land, substantially changed the ethnic demography of certain areas and eventually triggered the civil war. Farida Akhtar of Bangladesh talked about privatization and how it has led to 1.3 million girls below the age of twenty working in the garment industries as "cheap labor".
Other Indian activists talked about the patenting of Basmati rice and its piracy by an industrial apparatus. All the analyses of social problems had one thing in common: most of them were seen to be caused by the New Liberal Economic Policy, which in turn was viewed as Western imposed, foreign, Other.
This threat, implied or real, of Western control and intervention is not new to Indian concepts of development. The fiftieth year of Indian Independence reminds us all too clearly that the movements of India, including the environmental, social justice and women's movements, are grounded in a long historical process of nation building that has its foundation in the struggle against colonialism.
This anti-colonial struggle led to a vision of national development that was built on Gandhian notions of self- reliance and later, the Neruvian notions of industrial process. Gandhi's thoughts also influenced the essential notions of "India" as divorced from material, specifically "Western" material concerns. India as a nation protected its policies very closely from outside interference. Much of the radical activism of today is grounded in these models of development.
It was interesting to see how pervasive these models were in shaping the conceptual frameworks of most of the papers that were presented. The Gandhian model focused on The Village, or the rural areas, as the locus of national development. Therefore "the village" was seen to be the site of the Indian woman's location. Many of the activists focused therefore on sustainable livelihoods for women already situated within an agrarian economy. They talked about water, fodder, energy.
They talked about marginalisation of women through the appropriation of land by transnational companies. And while they talked about urban male migration and seasonal labor, they did not talk about the relationships between men and women and the shifting contexts of power within those relationships.
Looking at the ideological underpinnings of the critique of the neo-liberal economic policy, it became quickly clear that both the man in the taxi and the activists were fighting the same war on different sides: they were both hotly contesting the space to control the model of
"national development". They were fighting for its definition, its conceptualization, and how gender would be situated within their own separate models.
They were oppositional frameworks, but they could not be situated outside of each other. Both of them eventually, reconceptualize gender in new ways: one seeing women as expendable labor and commodity and the other situating her within a rural economy divorced from other networks, resources and aspirations.
The danger of the latter model, of course, is that it dumps women into a pristine rural ideal untouched by complex webs of relationships with the cities, with wage labor, and a transnational world filled with other possibilities. It also assumes that they are completely untouched by the economies of commodity production and exchange, and somehow miraculously have managed to escape the desire for TVS and news and other commodities that we, already tainted by the dirt of urban industrialization, allow ourselves to experience.
The slums of Bombay are a perfect metaphor for this kind of logic.
Slums in general are seen to be a "problem". They are viewed signs of the breakdown of the rural agricultural economy and of the marginalisation of large numbers of people. They are seen to be the results of the intervention of transnational companies into rural areas, the lack of resources allocated by the government, the natural disasters that beset subsistence agriculture. While these reasons are undeniable, it does not address all of the complexity: as the neon glow inside the tent of a squatter settlement outside JantarMantar in Delhi shows, maybe people also move to urban areas to be closer to resources that they might not have access to otherwise. By changing their location, maybe they manage to position themselves in a space that gives them access to other networks, and therefore also makes it easier to avail of different economies that would not be possible from their previous situation.
There could also perhaps be a space to see this as a process that is motivated by factors like the entrance of the money economy and the need for people to work within this model. Taking the urban development of England during the 1800s after industrialization and other Western countries might be seen as imperialistic ("Why do we have to follow the same model of development that they did?It's not inevitable"), but maybe they could provide a clue: maybe the time has come in South Asia to start working on urban as well as rural development.
For me, the slums of Bombay are symptomatic of another problem: the pervasive nationalism within activist discourse that stops people from integrating other models of development. As I bump through the suburbs and ghettos of Bombay, the unregulated industries giving way to factories with people sleeping in the compound, to the oily fumes of diesel in my face, I do not see Enron as the main problem: I see the way it has been used as a handy scapegoat to absolve people thinking about larger issues within the nation itself. Why are there no critiques of Indian industries, and the ways they could be regulated? Why is it not questionable that they are allowed to exploit people as cheap labor? Why are there no standards for minimum wages in the most exploitative industries (As thousands of Nepalis are working in these industries in India, this could become a question of "national development" for Nepal as well.)
At the end of the conference, there was a march through the street to protest the testing of the Bomb. The march stirred emotions and made me feel like I was participating in a historical moment. My enthusiasm was tempered, however, when one of the activists commented that they could work with the Indian government to influence its policies, but could not do so for Pakistan. This dichotomy of the inside and outside that is essential to the discourse of nationalism, seemed to me to be the same dichotomy that had led to the possibility of the Bomb. These dichotomies (India/Pakistan, Inside/Outside, rural/urban, development/underdevelopment) constitute the nationalist discourse which allows for static fixed entities, like "rural woman" to develop, and denies a larger space to interrogate these concepts. The fixed boundaries of the "nation" also gives the legitimacy to speak only to certain people, and not to others; allow for only certain questions to be asked, but not others. If we are to move towards larger understandings of change, we must take apart these dichotomies that underlie concepts of nation and development and allow ourselves more fluid analysis of our own structural constructions.
Sushma Joshi has a BA in international relations from Brown University.