Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Let Them Drink Cola!

There is much outcry against bottled soft drinks in India, though the percapita consumption of soft drinks in India is much lower than that of developed nations. Multinational corporations are an easy target for politicians, media and activists, but it is forgotten than most people in India don't even have access to safe water. My article titled "Let Them Drink Cola!" was published in TCS Daily on 2nd September 2003.

Over 200 years ago, a French queen advised her citizens to eat cake when they were struggling to find bread. The present outcry in India against bottled soft drinks rings an uncannily similar bell. India is not, of course, an absolute monarchy, but it is the largest democracy in the world today. However, the frantic response of our political leaders, the judiciary, the media and self-proclaimed activists suggests that the mindset of the Indian elite is much closer to the French queen than the population they are supposed to represent.

The fact is, 56 years after we gained our independence, 60 percent of Indian households do not have access to water in their homes and 44 percent have no electricity connections. Over 30 percent of households do not even have a safe water source near their homes. Indeed, five million homes -- or over 25 million people -- rely on rivers and ponds for their daily water.

According to the World Health Organisation, five million children die before the age of 5 due to water-borne diseases and lack of basic hygiene and sanitation. One would have thought that access to clean and safe water is one issue that would galvanise our leaders. It is not as if we do not know the scale of the problem before us. The Minister for Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, Sharad Yadav, at the height of the controversy over the quality of packaged water, told Business India magazine, "We cannot forget that more than 80% of our population is made to drink contaminated water that would be declared unfit even for animals in the West."

Every week, there are media reports of lack of basic water in different parts of the country.

* In July, a report noted that potable water in Andhra Pradesh is barely potable in many parts of the state. E. Coli was the most common bacteria found, indicating presence of human and animal excreta. While the WHO standard for presence of E.Coli in drinking water is nil, in at least one sample it was found to be 460 coliform per 100 ml of drinking water.

* In June, a study in Delhi indicated that that drinking water samples taken in the city contained faecal coliform and faecal strepticoccai.

* In Kolkata, a survey found 47 percent of water samples used for cooking and drinking was contaminated by coliform and faecal coliform. Another recent survey of water supplied to hospitals in that city indicated high levels of pollutants.

Per capita consumption of soft drinks in India is a mere six bottles in a year. In a country where per capita income is about 400 USD, and where over a quarter of the people live at an abject level of less than one USD a day, this is not surprising. Even in countries like Thailand, in our own neighbourhood, per capita consumption is about 80 bottles; in the United States, the corresponding figure is over 800 bottles. As for packaged water, less than 1 percent of Indians can afford to drink it regularly.

Yet the problem of safe drinking water rarely catches the fancy of the policymakers, political leaders and the media. If it did, then we would have no one else to blame but ourselves for the sufferings of our people. But of course, it is easy to blame someone else, and even more so if it happens to be a multinational corporation (MNC).

Way back in 1949 (two years after independence), an Environmental Hygiene Committee formed by the Government of India stated that the objective of public water supply should be "to provide water that is absolutely free from the risks of transmitting diseases; is pleasing to the senses, and is suitable for culinary and laundry purpose."

Why have we failed to provide access to safe water to our people? We have consistently sought to put the blame on our large population, their incessant demands, the shortage of resources, scarcity of water, and everything else. However, we have not done the one thing that would have made water available: create a "free market" for water. Instead, we have continued to proclaim water as a public good and have relied on public sector monopolies at local and state levels to provide potable water. And we have immunised the agencies against accountability by failing to define what constitutes potable water.

Coca-Cola is the largest brand in the world, recently valued at over 70 billion USD. Pepsi comes in at 12 billion USD. But no matter how big they may be, these giants can't force even one consumer to buy their products. There is no better incentive than the need to keep their paying customers satisfied. This is quite unlike the public utilities providing water to the population. Yet MNCs are soft targets; anyone looking for their two minutes of glory can hit them.

The recent incident has also brought to the surface the latent anti-business, anti-MNC prejudices that are prevalent among a large section of the elite and the chattering classes. Our apparent rage seems to be borne out of envy; after all, Coke and Pepsi have become household names by attracting loyal customers and supplying them with a value they cherish.

Among the blitzkrieg of actions proposed, there is a demand that our water and soft drinks must meet EU standards. We have indeed moved a long way in 56 years, back when we had sought our own tryst with destiny. More interestingly, we seem to move from having no standards for potable water to the toughest standards, without giving a thought to the relevance and associated costs. The EU not only has high standards, but it can, more pertinently, afford those standards, because it is the club of richest nations in the world.

The demand for mandatory standards, equivalent to EU or other international norms, is another attempt to mask reality. Standards are not created in a vacuum. It is no coincidence that rich countries with much higher income levels are also environmentally cleaner and safer, although they are much more industrialised, use much more energy, food, water, agro-chemicals including pesticides. The reason is that higher income levels are sustained in a free competitive economic environment. Increased consumption levels provide the incentive to improve efficiency. And this contributes to a cleaner and safer environment.

The answer to the present problem is not to blindly impose higher standards on products with little local relevance but to create an open economic environment that will enable our people to leap-frog their way out of poverty. Then we will be able to afford the higher quality of life, including potable water, which is taken for granted in all rich countries.

Marie Antoinette literally lost her head for suggesting that her people eat cake. Our collective fate may not be very much different if we continue to make a brouhaha over soft drinks and packaged water when our people have little access to safe drinking water.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Int'l NGO Coalition Demands Global Freedom to Trade

Press release titled Int'l NGO Coalition Demands Global Freedom to Trade was published on International Policy Network on August 26 2003.

Tuesday, 26 August, London – An international coalition of NGOs has launched a campaign which calls on trade ministers and governments everywhere to promote freedom to trade.

In anticipation of the World Trade Organisation’s 5th Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico, (10-14 September, 2003), six campaign members from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Bangladesh and India will gather in London on Wednesday (27 August) to call on governments everywhere to remove the artificial barriers that prevent people from trading with each other.

Campaign member Barun Mitra, director of Indian NGO the Liberty Institute, explains: “Members of the Global Freedom to Trade Campaign challenge world leaders to rise above national politics and vested interests at the Cancun Ministerial, tear down trade barriers, and give the people of the world the real freedom to trade. Freedom to trade enables people to escape from poverty.”

Campaign member James Shikwati, director of Kenyan NGO Inter-Region Economic Network, remarks: “Africans need trade, not aid. Aid leads to dependency, cronyism and conflict. Trade leads to empowerment, development and peace. Trade facilitates transfer of technology, leading to improvements in health and human welfare.”

According to Shikwati, Africans currently suffer because their governments prevent them from trading amongst themselves. He explains, “Average Africans stand to gain immensely from the WTO’s rules-based trading system, which provides a forum to negotiate removal of trade barriers.”

IPN’s Global Freedom to Trade Campaign calls on governments to remove all barriers to trade imposed by government, including tariffs, quotas, subsidies, and protectionist regulations. After the London launch on 27 August, the campaign will be launched in Washington, DC, and Mexico City. Campaign members will be in Cancun for the WTO meeting during 10-14 September, 2003.

Tuesday, April 8, 2003

U.S. and Saddam Fighting Two Different War

My article titled "U.S. and Saddam Fighting Two Different Wars" was published in the "Asian Wall Street Journal" on 8th April 2003.

The U.S.-led coalition is now at war with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Already, it is becoming clear that the two sides are fighting two very different wars. One side, the coalition, wants to reduce the death toll; the other hopes to thrive on death. Never before in history has any nation sought to win a war by trying to keep its own and as well as its enemy's casualties to the minimum. And perhaps never in history has the other side sought to win the same war by feeding on its own casualties.

The U.S. and U.K. are relying on high-tech firepower. The aim of their surgical strikes is to target specific military, command and communication facilities. It is hoped that this will not only reduce civilian casualties, but also avoid as much as possible disruption to basic services like electricity, telephone, radio and TV, even if some of these are also being used by the Iraqi military and regime. The other aspect of the use of high-tech firepower is to reduce risk to allied military personnel.

For Saddam, the purpose of the military is to protect him. His strategy toward this end is to increase civilian casualties. This is best seen from the failure of his regime to take basic precautions against air raids, such as imposing blackouts, shading windows, etc. Civilians in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq are paying the price. Furthermore, the prospect of a guerrilla war -- and the apparent glee with which the Iraqi leadership is awaiting such urban warfare -- indicates the utter disregard Saddam holds for his people. He wants blood, the blood of his own people and that of the U.S.-led forces.

In any war there will be casualties. But Saddam's hope is that civilian casualties from this war will make memories of his own atrocities more remote, and ultimately undermine U.S. resolve and spur international opinion to force American and allied forces to halt their campaign to oust him from power.

Saddam is also buttressing this image of civilian casualty by raising the specter of a long-drawn conflict involving urban warfare using guerrilla tactics and a pan-Arab or even a pan-Islamic uprising. He is wrong.

First, oppression by Islamic leaders against their fellow Muslims has been little mitigated by their shared religion. This explodes the myth of pan-Islamic unity. Second, even pan-Arab unity is a myth. It doesn't exist among the leadership; it doesn't exist among the people. While the leadership in many Arab capitals has abetted and benefited from the anti-Western, anti-U.S. sentiments, such expressions of frustration are themselves reminders of the nature of many Arab regimes which tolerate no dissent and no opposition to themselves.

The expectations that Saddam can wage a long guerrilla war and that Islamic terrorism may find new expressions are unfounded. Terrorism and militancy need more than mere zealotry: they need financing and equipment; in the post-Sept. 11 world, finding enough of both to sustain a long terror campaign in Iraq is impossible. Moreover, a taste of freedom in Iraq could easily take the wind out of militants in the Arab world.

War will always be a bloody business. While technological advances make war more precise, technology has also increased the firepower available. Therefore the potential for destruction has increased. And there will be the inevitable errors, mechanical and human, that lead to unintended civilian deaths and friendly fire incidents. Yet with greater respect for human life, the willingness to destroy life diminishes. This respect for life is best manifested in the ability of free and democratic countries to absorb a wide divergence of opinion without threatening the existence of that society.

There is hardly an Arab country that would have allowed the broadcast of public dissent such as filmmaker Michel Moore's recent outburst against the war at the Oscar ceremony. Indeed, this is not just an indication of divided opinion, but more importantly of the enormous strength of free societies. This is the reason why in free countries volunteer soldiers are willing to defend that freedom. This is also the reason why liberal democracies have the resiliency to bear the cost of war and to survive even a defeat. Dictatorships rarely survive military defeats.

Naturally, democracies strive to reduce casualties, military and civilian, because their power comes from the legitimacy conferred by the people. Dictatorships, however, have no scruples about sacrificing their people for the sake of power. This is why today, just as in the first Gulf War, Saddam is seeking to protect his elite troops from certain destruction by keeping them away from engaging coalition forces on the battlefield. Saddam doesn't need a Rommel or a Patton to lead his military to victory against an external enemy. Saddam needs the military to keep him in power and control his own people.

If the U.S.-led coalition looks on this war not just as an opportunity to dismantle Saddam's weapons of mass destruction or an opportunity to replace one tyrant with a friendlier one, but as a war on tyranny, and stays the course to free the people of Iraq, ordinary people in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world are likely to rejoice.

We just have to look back on how the people of Germany and Japan reconstructed their freedom from the ruins of World War II. This is the freedom that people from Indochina sought when they took to boats to escape to freedom in the West. The desire for freedom is universal. It would be well not to let television's real-time coverage of the war change that view.

Monday, March 17, 2003

Battling for Baghdad And Freedom

My article titled "Battling for Baghdad And Freedom" was published in the Wall Street Journal on 17th March 2003.

War is a messy business. And it invariably imposes great human sufferings. Nevertheless, there are times when war is necessary to achieve an objective not possible by other means, particularly if the cost of inaction outweighs the cost of war. Most importantly, war is not an end in itself. It is only a means to a greater end. The question to ask today, therefore, is not about the tragedy of a possible war in Iraq, but the greater tragedy that might follow if Saddam Hussein is allowed to remain in power.

Clearly, the issue goes beyond disarming Saddam, or even "regime change." It concerns instituting in Iraq a modern, liberal order based on the rule of law. It implies providing an opportunity for the Arab and Muslim population of the region to enjoy freedom and to benefit from peace and prosperity. If ever there was a case for a just war, the situation in Iraq is it.

The basic issue in Iraq is disarming Saddam's regime. The problem with the U.N.-led disarmament effort is that it functions in the Cold War context. Within this context, policies of containment and disarmament worked because both sides did not want to mutually destroy each other. But the price of that policy was the rise of realpolitik, where ideals and morality were sidestepped in order to rope in friendly dictators and tyrants in the effort to contain the other side.

Disarmament can work in situations where the leadership decides to adopt it. Disarmament can also work in situations where the political leadership decides not to seek weapons of mass destruction, even though that nation's technological know-how and economic capacity would allow such developments, as in the case of Japan and most other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

After 12 years and numerous U.N. resolutions, it is clear the Iraqi regime is nowhere near accepting the principles of disarmament. Iraq would not even have allowed in U.N. arms inspectors but for the sustained pressure of the U.S.-led coalition. And if there has been some positive movement reported by the inspectors, it is because of the armed forces assembled on the borders of Iraq by the "coalition of the willing."

Containment won't work if a regime or a leader is willing to follow a self-destructive course or seeks military adventurism. And if there is one lesson to be learned from the Cold War, it is that liberal democracies must promote the ideals of freedom, the rule of law and limited government, and never again let dictators of any political hue acquire WMD and recreate the balance of terror under the theory of mutually assured destruction. This is why preemptive war becomes relevant in the context of Iraq. Policies of containment and disarmament no longer work in the post-Cold War and post-Sept. 11 world.

Destroying WMD facilities in Iraq is no guarantee that the regime will not be able to reassemble the necessary technology. To attempt to keep Saddam in check means establishing a hugely expanded inspection regime, coupled with an almost permanent deployment of coalition forces to maintain a credible threat of force in the event of violation. Yet such an exercise would not only be costly but provides no assurance of success.

It is feared that a war to replace Saddam would raise Arab and Muslim anger, and spur militancy and terrorism. Yet a successful change of regime in Iraq could once and for all expose the hollowness of the claim that the populations in the Middle East are not yet ready for liberalism. This might in effect boost the possibility of a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- because of the shared liberal values of freedom and democracy. Let us not insult the populations in the Middle East by holding them unfit for freedom.

This is where the present anti-war movements, particularly in the West, have got it wrong. Peace activists are concerned about human suffering in the event of war. In the process, most of the activists seem to ignore the suffering caused by brutal regimes such as Saddam's. In fact, many rationalize that these regimes are products of U.S. and other interventions. But then when the U.S. at last seems to recognize the limits of realpolitik and to want to rectify the mistakes of the Cold War era, it is condemned for neocolonial aspirations.

It is time to recognize that the aspiration for freedom is universal. If the U.N. Security Council fails to free the people of Iraq, the people of Iraq are unlikely to shed any tear for the demise of the U.N. If the peace movement doesn't recognize the aspiration for freedom, then the people of Iraq may seek to find their own peace, consigning to the dustbin of history the peace movement that seeks to perpetuate the status quo of tyranny.

Today, we have all the right ingredients for the liberation of Iraq. The basic motive is to replace a regime that practices terror as state policy. After 12 years, there is no indication that Saddam's regime has accepted the principle of disarmament. The use of force is the only option to disarm it and liberate the people of Iraq.

Despite all efforts to reduce casualties, war will bring human suffering. But without a war, suffering could be multiplied many-fold if Saddam's regime finds access to weapons of mass destruction. Finally, the people of Iraq deserve better. Their freedom must be protected by establishing a participatory civil society and representative government under the rule of law -- rather than rule by men like Saddam -- and integrate it with the global community. This won't be easy, but the cost of failure will be higher. The Battle for Baghdad will pave the road to freedom for the Iraqi people.

Regimes such as Saddam's are products of Cold War realpolitik. It's time for change. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it is imperative that such regimes are changed, through domestic and international pressure or military action if necessary.