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Wednesday, Jul 21, 2004

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The growing discontent over globalisation

Madan Sabnavis

THE names Nike, McDonalds, Baskin Robbins, Marks and Spencer, MTV and Enrique carry the yuppie tags with them and are the ultimate symbols to say that India has arrived.

The liberalisation of the economy was best manifest by the arrival of various brands of foreign goods and services. In fact, at times, it is difficult to distinguish between Manhattan and Mumbai or Delhi.

Economic discussions invariably talk of further hastening reforms, gains from trade through the WTO, privatisation, more foreign funds — in short globalisation.

But globalisation today is nothing but disguised imperialism — the imposition of the `West' over the rest of the world on a seemingly fair and just canvas. The players, however, are not equal; or rather some are more equal.

Historical dialectics spoke of imperialism being the ultimate result of unbridled capitalism, which sowed the seeds for socialism or communism. With glasnost and perestroika in the USSR and the fall of the Berlin wall. Communism all but came down. Capitalism has come to be accepted world-wide, except for some pockets. Even China's success has been attributed to the capitalist spirits which have driven the socialist economy. However, this process of globalisation has actually given rise to contradictions; the `thesis and antithesis' theories which bring back a Marxian déjà vu.

A look at how these forces operate. Everyone likes better living and easy flow of foreign goods at the right prices is more than welcome. So the OGL (open general licence) is expanding and our pockets bulging with Hersheys chocolates or Wrigley's chewing gum.

The upper- and middle-classes benefit; Indian producers complain and the poor (a realistic level of 400 million people) are fed the hope that it would one day all trickle-down to them too.

Prof Joseph Stiglitz, in his book, Globalisation and its Discontents, has cogently built a theory of how IMF's policies have harmed the countries they were intended to assist, and were geared more towards keeping the US economy going. This was through the imposition of `conditions' which did more harm than good to the nations concerned. Governments were forced to lower trade barriers without looking at domestic conditions, which has to the gradual erosion of domestic industry. There is a reason for pursuing such policies.

The developed countries have hit the growth ceiling, which cannot go beyond 1-2 per cent per annum. Population growth is low, and the society saps domestic demand and dampens the economy.

Therefore, these nations need to look outwards where there is growing demand; and exports become a vital ingredient for growth as is the case in the Euro zone, the US and Japan. Globalisation is the vehicle, and the WTO and the IMF, the instruments.

A look at the ideas that are either thrust by the globalisation process. Governments should not run deficits, and subsidies are a bane. Never mind that the US runs the highest deficit followed by Japan, Germany and France.

The Euro zone and the US provide farm subsidies that are a hundred times as that provided by the developing countries. These are not justified but an intransigent stance taken on this issue.

In fact, the WTO talks broke down in 2003 precisely on this issue. Customs duty rates have been reduced on grounds of efficiency and even the Indian average rate of 28 per cent is considered high relative to the single-digit figures of other countries. Butthe level of growth and development should be the starting point for reduction in duties, as unchecked imports have a tendency to cannibalise domestic industry.

Developing countries, including India, have been told to privatise and be more open to foreign investment. Hence, even as India has been one of the best-performing economies in the last three years with mounting foreign exchange reserves, the rating agencies have frowned on these issues.

On the other hand, the US has made foreign (Indian) domination of BPO and ITES a major election issue. Movement of people across borders should logically also be a part of the globalisation process. But are the Western nations open to this idea? If goods and services are mobile across nations, so should labour be.

In fact, the biggest success of globalisation has been the strong reaction of domestic monetary policies to the actions of the US fed chief, Mr Alan Greenspan. This is the ultimate symbol of nations losing control over their domestic policies.

Policies such as capital account convertibility, flexible exchange rates and free trade have caused considerable turmoil in Mexico, Argentina, East Asia, Russia, Nigeria and elsewhere.

There is a feeling that the discontent with capitalism and globalisation would keep rising, albeit gradually, especially so as the chasm between the developed and developing countries widens.

Even in India, there is the realisation that while economic reforms have delivered, a large section still remains left out, and the hostility that is growing towards Western values could extend within too .

It would be interesting to conjecture whether or not the system would gravitate back to socialism , especially in the lesser developed countries, albeit in a more moderate form, as this euphemistic process of globalisation spreads. A possible continuation of the dialectic process?

(The author is Chief Economist, NCDEX Ltd. The views are personal.)

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