Ankhi Das, a name which all of a sudden has become popular in the country, continues to make headlines in the media. The Public policy chief of Facebook for South and Central Asia, Das is known for her proximity to the Bharatiya Janata Party and how she shaped Facebook’s policy more aligned to the right-wing party. Her remarks do not just limit to this alignment brought about to win the general elections in 2014, but, go deeper to the ideological malaise to which she is linked. And that ideological leaning provides her a fitting joint to be with the BJP.
That ideological ‘malaise’ was exhibited in a message posted in 2014, just a day before the results were to be announced. The post read, “Its taken 30 years of grassroots work to get rid of India of state Socialism finally.” Facebook did its job; and Das reportedly wrote in a group, “We lit a fire to his (Modi’s) social media campaign and the rest is of course history.”
I do not want to contest here whether it is state socialism or state capitalism; but this ideological malaise of Ankhi Das et al, working in various capacities to get rid of state intervention, and how ‘big capital’ was immensely interested to see this change is all the more interesting. Not that the withdrawal of the state from many important sectors began after 2014 following the victory of BJP, it started quite early in the 1990s. But ensuring a victory to BJP was all the more linked to fasten the pace of this neo-liberal capitalism.
Ankhi Das’s statement reminds one of a book, Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins. Perkins was responsible to align many countries of South Asia to the US concept of democracy and to convince leaders of underdeveloped countries to accept loans for large construction and engineering projects, and then ensuring that these projects were contracted to US companies. He did all that was in his power to do so. From bribing country heads to making them vulnerable. The similarities, between what John Perkins did for the US and what Ankhi Das et al are trying to do are many, with the only difference that John Perkins wrote his confessions and admitted to his misdemeanour, whereas Das continues to ride on the same horse.
Another name, which is less discussed but equally virulent with the same malaise against state intervention, and now is in the closet of the prime minister is Sanjeev Sanyal. Sanyal is a principal economic adviser in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India. I remember meeting him in one of the conferences in Delhi on urban issues. This conference, organised jointly by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank, was called the ‘Urban Age Conference’. Interestingly, Abhijeet Banerjee (Nobel laureate), Professor Dunu Roy and I were in the same panel called: Inclusive Governance.
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The focus of the discussion was to have more empowered cities and inclusive governance with greater intervention of the state. After the discussion was over, Sanyal met and said that the era of state intervention is over. The government should not have any business in running the utilities in the cities and except governance, rest all should be commanded under the private sector to make cities more competitive and attractive to get investments. Sanyal is now part of the policy paradigm changes in the Modi government and we can easily realise why the growth of the GDP has fallen by nearly 24%.
Let us explore the depth of this malaise towards state intervention and how this policy direction has affected the functioning of the cities. In 2015, the concept of smart cities was announced by the BJP government. One hundred smart cities were identified in the country on a so-called ‘competitive’ basis which was then supposed to be the lighthouse of urban governance. One of the essential elements in the qualification for smart cities was the urban reforms carried out in these cities. These reforms which sounded as progressive, however, were inherently regressive - for the privatisation of the cities; privatisation of its assets and governance. Quintessential to these reforms was how much capital generation and user fee generation was taking place in the cities.
These 100 smart cities were not to be run by the conventional system of council empowered decision making in the municipality, rather through the creation of special purpose vehicle (SPV). The SPVs were then registered under the Companies Act and none of the SPVs formed in the country are headed by the elected members including the mayor. These are controlled either by a bureaucrat or by a consultant. The malaise against state intervention did not just restrict to the selling of the public sector undertakings but extended even to the functioning and governance of the cities.
How this functioning has further worsened the condition of the people living in the cities and how the SPV formula has been a big failure need not be stressed here. The point is that this malaise towards state intervention is for abject privatisation of the assets that the community or the city owns in the urban Indian context. There is a push for privatisation of basic utilities like garbage collection, solid waste management, water distribution, housing and almost all the basic utilities that the state or its structure was supposed to provide or intervene in.
In this background, we have also seen how the smart cities concept is for the digitisation of the city-governance and even functions. There is no harm in digitisation but the way it is being carried out and which is now all the more unambiguous with the deals struck between Reliance and Facebook, it is for expropriating massive surplus from the pockets of the citizens. The smart cities offer spaces for such loot to get legitimised. Digital solutions which could have been provided at cheaper rates are shelved and the city command centres (digitally controlled centres) are being handed over to big corporates.
Hence, Ankhi Das et al and their intervention are not just restricted to the partnership established between the BJP and Facebook or likewise, but are part of the larger agenda that they want to implement in India. BJP, for that matter, is a nice tool to implement.
The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla. The views are personal.
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