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The Economist, Lazy Journalism and Brutality (or why I fell out of love after getting smacked in the face)

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I read a piece in the Economist that irritated me. It was about India’s energy future. Let me start with a premise. I love the Economist. I love its liberalism, sarcasm and sensible moderation. I’ve gone so far as subscribing, reading it in hard copy in spite of the fact that I have an e-reader and am otherwise 21st century.

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I look forward to Monday mornings when I get the ‘paper’ (as they, oddly, call themselves) in my mailbox. My love for the magazine is best expressed in a Seussian poem:

I read it on the train.

I read it on the plane.

I read it on the bus.

I read it with no fuss.

I read it before bed.

I read it for what’s said.

But this I won’t forget.

Why would I be upset?

Why would I be upset….

I opened my letterbox on Monday, put the magazine down with the intention of opening it when I had some free time. This afternoon I had a pint and sat down to read. An article drove me to blog.- I saw that someone had penned something called: “The future is black: Power is essential for India’s long-term growth. But electricity is unlikely to flow fast enough.”

What is the author saying? He/she is making the claim that India, as an emerging economic power, has increasing energy needs. Fair enough.

He/she is also making the point that India’s energy capacity falls far short of demand. Anyone who has spent time in Delhi, Bombay or anywhere else in the country, for that matter, knows this is a problem. Brownouts are all too common.

He/she then makes the point that India has explored numerous energy possibilities, ranging from nuclear power (not working because of ‘hostility from states and popular groups) to oil (promising, but reserves unlikely to3 be sufficient to meet growing demand). Ok. That makes sense. So, that leads to the following conclusion: coal is the way forward.

Why do I have problem with it? It’s lazy journalism. But, it’s more than that. It’s lazy journalism that could have adverse consequences for the people who live in India’s Maoist affected areas. The powerful may not be the average reader of the Economist, but the powerful do read the Economist. What their writers’ write has real world consequences. When they write dangerous and lazy crap, this is a problem.

As the Economist points out,reliance on fossil fuel is a problem. There are environmental risks from the use of coal, and fossil fuels in general. But, as the piece suggests, who are we in the West to deny countries like China and India the right to develop and reap the bounty of modern society as we have done for some time? I couldn’t agree more.

What is stopping India from tapping into the energy resources it needs for it’s growth?  It’s the state, of course:

Today east India remains coal’s heartland and control of the sooty stuff lies with one of the most important companies that most people have never heard of: Coal India.

It is a mighty odd beast. Its blood is of the public sector, with modest buildings, 375,000 staff, an empire of largely opencast mines and company towns, and even its own song. Its managers are proud scientists and engineers. And prices are fixed by the state, at far below international levels.

Ok. So now, the problem is reduced to a state monopoly. I’m not defending Coal India. They are probably as inefficient and bureaucratic as most corporate entities that the government in India runs. I get it. Is that really the problem?

Recently I read a piece by Kathy Le Mons Walker entitled, “Neoliberalism On The Ground In Rural India: Predatory Growth, Agrarian Crisis, Internal Colonization, And The Intensification of Class Struggle” (I can’t link to it as it’s a journal piece and access is restricted. For those of you who might be interested it’s in the Journal of Peasant Studies October 2008). Her argument is that India’s pattern of growth is displacing populations at a similar rate to that of China. The difference is that China is specializing in industrial production while India is specializing in service industries. Service industries cannot absorb as many people as consumer product industries and therefore, the logic of Indian development is genocidal.

While I don’t share her Marxist pessimism (nor do I share her worldview), I do wonder if she has a point. The coal reserves that India ‘needs’ in order to ‘develop’ are in areas populated by aidvasi. And what is happening in the adivasi areas right now is a resource war. India needs the coal. People live on top of the coal. There are also angry people with guns preventing you from getting the coal. In short, there are problems that go beyond Coal India.

For the Economist, however, this doesn’t matter. It’s incidental. Unlike real journalism (say, I dunno… this piece from Scotty Carney and Jason Miklian), the magazine (or this ‘paper’, as they would) sees the problem as one of state industries. When it comes to actual people, well, hell, it’s a problem that can be summed up with this:

At Gondegaon, a vast opencast mine in the Nagpur field, engineers need more space to dump the earth and rock that is dug up with coal. A map shows the pit hemmed in by villages and scrub land. Acquiring the land, compensating the villagers and making sure they shift poses a challenge harder than geology, says the company. “We do not have a magic wand in our hand to increase production,” 

They don’t have a magic wand! What to do? But, according to The Economist, pesky villagers are incidental. They can be compensated. Lets ignore the fact that over 100,000 people have been displaced in India because of development, over 70% of those being adivasi. Let’s also ignore the fact that ‘compensation’, when there is any (and there usually isn’t) usually takes the form of meagre lump sumps. But (says the company and I’ll even pretend a quote from ‘the company’ rather than a particular source isn’t, umm… lazy), they have a problem bigger than GEOLOGY! They have VILLAGERS. Incidental. Coal India is the problem.

Of course, there Maoists are preventing business from mining the coal as well (I wonder if this too is a problem even bigger than Geology). The Economist recongises this with one line in a three page article:

In east India the firm faces another problem: most reserves are in remote areas where Maoist guerrillas operate.

As with the local populace, the Maoists are incidental to the problem Indian development and coal extraction. After all, there is Coal India.

The Maoists are not incidental. Nor are the adivasi. Until the government recognisez that something is going on, that these areas that they’d like to exploit are populated by human beings who may not like the state very much, they have a problem. The Maoists are a symptom of the relations between India and the local population. Maybe relations between India and her indigenous people have a tragic dimension that can only be resolved through violence. If that’s what is necessary to resolve India’s resource dilemma, at least have the decency to not write the indigenous out of the story. Don’t wave a magic wand that turns what is actually going on in India’s land of coal to a problem of corporate organization with ‘villagers’ and ‘Maoists’ becoming an incidental problem. Not only is this lazy, it’s dangerous.

The Economist wrote a story about coal that doesn’t talk about the place where the coal is. Badly done.

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Written by Michael

January 25, 2012 at 5:23 pm

The Fire Last Time

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There’s an interesting article by Megha Baree on the Forbes website. She is the daughter of a Calcutta-based businessman who had to flee the city because of Naxalite violence during the late 1960s.  It was a particular brutal time:

Every day he and his colleagues would meet at a different spot in the city and be escorted by the police, in a convoy, to the factory. One day a colleague who usually traveled with Avinash in his car, fed up with it all, called a taxi to go home early. The cab had barely exited the 10-acre factory compound when it was attacked, and he was knifed to death. “He had six children,” Avinash remembers. “I had to tell his wife. She never forgave me.” While they were at the funeral two men on motorcycles drove by and threw crude bombs filled with nails at them.

The Naxalites of 1968 were a very different breed than the Naxalites of the 21st century. It was a movement made up largely of students, intellectuals and the working class. In the heady days of 1968 the rebels thought, with the support of China, they could quickly overthrow the state through insurrection and the ‘annihlation of class enemies’. They were wrong. Their brutality engendered a backlash and a viscious state response that virtually decimated the party.

The survivors learned their lesson. Rather than dramatic urban action, they would slowly cultivate support and control in isolated rural areas. It is a much smarter strategy.

(Photo: Charu Mazumdar, the founder of the original Naxlite group, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst) )

Written by Michael

May 9, 2010 at 2:47 pm

The Return of People’s March

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The ‘Voice of the Indian Revolution’ has returned. In late 2008, the Kerala-based People’s March magazine was banned after the arrest of its editor. According to the Hindustan Times, the publication ban was overturned after the Press Registrar Appellate Board declared that the proscription was invalid as no formal charges had been brought against the magazine by the government. Good for them. Aside from my academic interest in having access to an English language publication which at least semi-represents the views of the CPI (Maoist), it seems that banning propaganda is a particularly crude and ineffective way at combating a highly sophisticated insurgency. If anything, publications such as People’s March can help provide the government with some insight into the current intellectual and tactical direction of the guerillas.

As for the magazine itself, a PDF of the latest issue can be found here. I haven’t yet been able to track down a website.

Written by Michael

November 16, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Andhra CM Missing… Update 2

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A couple of things… while the NSA has stated that it is unlikely that the CM’s helicopter was brought down by the Naxalites because they lack the weaponry for such a strike, this runs contrary to some previous reports. According to the Indian Express, material was seized during a raid by Jharkhand police in August 2007 which indicated that:

the extremists have been training in the use of 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns and have already acquired 80 mm mortars and rocket-propelled grenade rifles.

The Economic Times has also claimed that unnamed ‘reports’ suggest that the Naxalites have acquired a number of anti-aircraft guns. While the Times is… umm… a little bit vague on the details, it is a surprise that the NSA has so soon and so unequivocally stated that the Naxalites do not possess the capabilities to undertake a strike against a helicopter. It’s a bit premature.

Andhra CM Missing… Update

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India’s National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan has all but ruled out that the disappearance of the helicopter carrying Andhra’s CM had anything to do with the Maoists. Narayanan:

Naxal strike seems extremely improbable. I would almost entirely rule it out. I do not think the Naxalites have the capability to bring down the helicopter.

At present, the massive search and rescue operation has been halted due to heavy rains that have rendered the dense forests around the last known location of the helicopter virtually impassible. Will the Naxalites be able to get there first? While the Nallamlla forests are no longer the Maoist strongholds that they were in the early half of the decade, armed guerrilla fighters still have a significant presence.

Written by Michael

September 2, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Missing in Naxalite Zone

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This is significant enough for me to break my end-of-summer hiatus. The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh’s helicopter disappeared this morning while flying over a Maoist controlled area. According to the BBC:

The helicopter carrying Mr Reddy and four others took off from Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport at 0845 IST (0315 GMT) bound for the village of Anupally in Chittoor district.

It was scheduled to land at 1045 but went missing at 0936 while flying over Kurnool district.

Sixteen hours after the crash, neither the helicopter nor the CM have been located. Whether the chopper was brought down by the Maoists or whether it had to land due to inclement weather is still unclear. If the Maoists are found to have been involved in anyway, it will likely trigger a significant police/military response. I’ll continue to monitor over the next few days.

Written by Michael

September 2, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Security Assessment- Chhattisgarh

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A good assessment of the current security environment in Chhattisgarh, courtesy of the South Asian Terrorism Portal. As always, a must read.

India's Red Army