India's true spirit of enterprise lies in urban neighbourhoods

One of the most fascinating aspects of India to an outsider like me is the crowded urban neighbourhoods that play host to thousands of small businesses.

In what are often one-room shops, men repair two-wheelers, operate lathes, mill or bake, printing presses run, wood is cut, garments are ironed, photocopying and desktop publishing, metal pipes and plastic tubing or family shops selling food. A dabha here, a rice trader, jeweller and a tailor there, every street is a hive of business activity.

These neighbourhoods play host to India’s genuine ‘creative industries’ and spirit of endeavour. Those terms have, however, been hijacked by the ‘new’ India of steel and glass, where ad agencies, tech-savvy college graduates and marketers ply their trades.

What do these people actually ‘create’ though - mobile ‘apps’, social media technology, slick propaganda to promote goods and gadgets of dubious worth and fashions and trends for the better-off. This is corporate India, an India that is big on self-promoting itself as the innovative engine. I recently met a doctor from the Netherlands who was on vacation in Kolkata. He spent much of his time in shopping malls located in the new satellite developments in Salt Lake. It was his first brief visit to the country.

He seemed fascinated by this corporate India and the open attitudes of the 20-somethings he encountered and found them a refreshing change from the more traditional India. Not only was he fascinated by what he was finding, but he was also under the impression that such types represented India’s entrepreneurs and innovators.

It’s easy to be seduced by the world of the English speaking, fashion conscious  people who you tend to encounter in such AC, steel and glass worlds. For many foreign visitors, this world is a mirror image of ‘home,’ a showcase of how India should be: a world of outsourced service sector jobs, international brands and concentrated affluence based on a distorted notion of ‘development.’

What too often goes unacknowledged is the recognition that much of this world represents the willingness of the nation’s powerholders to acquiesce to (and personally profit from) the motives of the Western corporations that depressed wages at home over a period of decades in order to appropriate more wealth and then, faced with consequent falling profits as the debt bubble created to sustain demand burst, turned to places like India to seek even more profits via even cheaper labour and controlling resources and markets.

One sector that has oiled this process and witnessed huge growth in India over the last 20 years has been the advertising industry. Its end-products are slick, glossy and highly persuasive. But there’s not much ‘innovation’ or ‘creativity’ here – just a cut-and-borrow industry that uses the same techniques its western counterpart has been using for years, adapted to the needs of an Indian audience and used to create new markets, demands and false needs.

Bogus campaigns

But let’s not be too harsh on the ad industry. Whether it’s an outsourced call centre, a western agribusiness armed with its pesticide-responsive seeds or a social media development concern, any innovation or creativity, if that’s what it can be called, is too often merely used to make predatory capitalism slicker, more appealing and more controlling. The more sophisticated and powerful technology becomes, the greater is the danger that it is used to enslave people.

Look no further than the lakhs of farmers who have been thrown into poverty or who have taken their own lives as a result of the desire of western agribusiness to control the food supply in India via its political connections and bogus campaigns of how its brand of ‘innovative’ biotechnology can save the country from itself. Yet, so many people have bought into the notion of these ‘creative industries’ being the saviour of the nation.

There is more genuine creativity in the fields of India, where rural workers are the true wealth creators. What greater wealth can there be than the creation of locally sourced, untampered and nutritious food? Food and food sovereignty marks the real wealth of a nation, not the ability to sell use-and-throw goods via trendy advertising agencies or to mount PR campaigns to con the public into believing ‘West knows best.’

It is easy to ascertain where ‘modern’ India’s priorities lie. While the creamy layer of the service sector/’creative industries’ is paid well by its corporate masters, it is the actual wealth creators, the farm labourers and many of the back street entrepreneurs who live in poverty or hover above it.

Given current trends, things could well get worse. Foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, disinvestments in profitable public sector enterprises and attempts to increase foreign direct investment in the insurance sector will certainly benefit foreign capital and big corporations. But what will be the effect on ordinary people of price rises and reduced subsidies?

Whether it is helped by slick media propaganda, is instituted by law through the pen or takes place by military oppression through the barrel of a gun, today in India looting and violence take many forms.

In the meantime, the beneficiaries of this predatory capitalism, both in India and across the world, lie back and wallow in their ever increasing wealth. While in public, they and their media like to mouth platitudes about the virtues of globalisation, behind closed doors in the policy-driving think tanks and corridors of power, the words are somewhat different. There, it’s a case of “Let them (the masses) eat cake.” In India’s case, not necessarily cake, but poor quality government subsidised rice.

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