After pro-rich neoliberalism emerged triumphant, people who are at the helm of affairs appear to be obsessed with only one thing - ‘ease of doing business’. Every year the World Bank releases the Ease of Doing Business Index in which it ranks countries on the basis of their business friendliness. If a country wants to prove that it is business-friendly it has to listen to the World Bank, the custodian of big businesses.
Now the question arises as to what exactly the big businesses want? Though they cite some cleverly worded performance indicators to compile the index, their true intention appears to be something else. They want land at throw-away prices even if it is fertile agriculture land, they want licenses to be issued immediately even if their business are likely to result in environmental degradation, they want labour laws to be favourable to them so that it becomes easy for them to hire and fire workers and exploit them, and they want the government to respond favourably to their ‘bail out’ demands from time to time so that they can transfer their risk on to the tax payers notwithstanding the fact that they cozily enjoy their profits during their heyday. And, finally, they want the corporate taxes to be lowered to enable them to take more profits.
The top 1 per cent of people, who control more than50 percent of the nation’s wealth, are the ones dictating how the country should be run; they influence policy formulation. The people who are at the helm of affairs run the country as per the diktats of their corporate cronies. Regimes come and regimes go but crony capitalism remains constant. The influential business classes ceaselessly lobby for an improvement in the ease of doing business. And in return they fund the election campaigns of their political cronies. It all happens on a quid pro quo basis.
Government of India, in 2015, had formed a panel to improve the ease of doing business ranking of India. They, in the same breath, made the corporate funding of political parties more opaque to facilitate anonymous donations. These two actions make it amply clear how politicians and business tycoons move hand in hand and serve each other’s interests. It appears that the government’s efforts to improve the ease of doing business have paid off and India leapfrogged to 100th position in the index, which triggered euphoria among the politicians, business tycoons and the press. Now, the government is gearing up to present it as one of its biggest achievements.
Well, they have the ‘ease of doing businesses’. Now the question is when will the poor and the downtrodden have an ‘ease of living index’? The daily lives of the economically disadvantaged have become laborious and stressful; they lead agonisingly painful lives in squalid conditions. Their children don’t have enough food to eat. In the recently released Global Hunger Index (GHI) India featured at 100th position among the 119 countries, lagging behind even North Korea, which is ruled by a despotic regime, and war-torn Iraq.
In spite of all this grinding poverty, our governments have been progressively reducing the welfare spending in the name of maintaining fiscal prudence. They say that the credit rating agencies may downsize our sovereign credit rating if we don’t keep our fiscal deficit under control by controlling the expenditure. They, however, don’t think about the same fiscal prudence while announcing so-called ‘measures to spur growth’. As part of these measures they give bailouts to big businesses in the name of bank recapitalisation, hand out hefty pay hikes to the largely lackadaisical and venal government staff and splurge money on building physical infrastructure at the cost of the social infrastructure.
They make us believe that economic growth results in ‘trickle-down effect’that contributes to decrease in poverty. But what we actually see in reality is a ‘gush up’ effect, as part of which the money from the poor and middle class is travelling upwards to fall into the hands of the rich and the ultra-rich. They also make us believe that the growth results in an increase in employment. However, a rating agency called Care Ratings, in its recent report, has stated that employment generation has not kept pace with GDP expansion, thus confirming the fears that we are witnessing a condition known as jobless growth.
Recently I read in a newspaper that World Bank is planning to rank the main cities all over the world on the basis of ease of living. The ease of living index, unlike ease of doing business index, should not confine itself to urban centres. Because though the businesses are mostly concentrated in urban centres, human habitations are spread everywhere. Moreover, the sacred task of bringing out an ease of living index should not be taken up by the World Bank, which is an embodiment of neoliberal ideology that played a lead role in making developing countries all over the world to salami-slice their welfare spending.
In the pre-reform period, the advocates of reforms would always say if you don’t create wealth how will you distribute it? Since the rich have generated mind-numbingly enormous wealth by using societal resources, are they ready to part with a small percentage of it by paying direct taxes honestly to enable the poor to at least satiate their hunger and meet some of their basic necessities? Everyday, thousands of new swanky sedans and monstrous SUVs hit the Indian roads and the ever-mushrooming jewellery and luxury goods shops make brisk business but direct tax base widens at snail’s pace. The government, instead of taxing the rich, has imposed the regressive and burdensome GST on the entire population.
Our rulers, after they hurriedly embraced neoliberalism in 1991, appear to have become oblivious to the fact that in a country like India where poverty is rampant and farmers and landless labourers are under distress, laissez-faire economics gradually turns the nation into a fiefdom of the rich. Unfortunately, however, terms such as growth and ease of business became too sacrosanct and no one is willing to take the risk of questioning them.
Ramachandra Reddy is a professor of English
(The views expressed are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of The New Indian Express Group.)