Becker interviews Roy
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Summary: Interview of Arundhati Roy by Konrad Becker, around the World Information City event.
Becker asks Roy about the symbolic quality of Bangalore, given it is an IT hub
So it would be very interesting to have your take on sort of this symbolic quality of.. of.. of information technology as it is in a way promoted by government, but also by corporate, and then just seen as also this kind of aspiration of the Indian middle class, to be part of that..
World Information City
Roy talks of how other cities were also cyber-cities, and efforts are on to create a secure zone of privilege in a sea of local despair. Roy speaks of how the corporates monopolize the question of 'who pays, who profits?' and the brunt of it is borne by rural India, and of the new policy imagination of India that has no place for the non-consumer.
Well, I think.. I mean, whether you look at a city like Bangalore or, you know, until recently, until Chandrababu Naidu lost the elections, and Hyderabad was 'cyber-city' and Chief Minister was referring to himself as a CEO and.. you know, both in Karnataka and in.. in Andhra Pradesh, they were the sort of blue-eyed targets of, you know, the World Bank and ADB loans, and the whole project of.. of neo-liberalism. And.. and.. it's.. it's very important, I think, to understand that that project has the success it has only because of course it does benefit some people. That's how it creates its base. And.. and obviously Bangalore is one of the sites of its, you know, supposed success. And the effort that is on, both in Bangalore, and in a city like Hyderabad, and now in Calcutta and Chennai, to create this.. this sort of it.. it.. it's a sort of secured zone where you're securing yourself in an island of.. in an international island of privilege, in a.. in a sea of local despair, you know? It's.. I was talking to a group of people just last week, who had done a study of twenty-six states in India, and, you know, how this whole project which is.. which includes IT, information technology, and call-centres and the corporatisation of agriculture and the privatization of seeds and privatization of essential infrastructure. All this is part of a package, and it benefits some and it devastates others. So, in this situation, we have, you know, I think they had.. they ha.. their data said that in the last.. this is '94, something like 26,000 farmers have committed suicide. And this is when both 'suicide' and 'farmers' are contested definitions, you know? People who have land but the land is registered in their fathers' names are not counted as farmers, and, you know, what constitutes suicide and why it was ha.. all those, I mean a conservative estimate was that. So now the issue is, as always, I mean it's not a new question, you know, who pays, who profits? And so, here you have a situation where even.. even the.. even the collaboration between the corporate and the state isn't new, you know? It's never been new. Even the people that are at the forefront of the.. of the cacophony of the free market are people whose own enterprises are entirely subsidized by the state. For example, the IT industry in Bangalore, you know, the reason that they are given all this very valuable urban land on completely subsidized basis, on the.. on the promise that they will provide jobs. But jobs to whom? Once again to the.. to the elite of India. And the cost of jobs being lost, for the same kind of vision, in rural India. So you see, I mean we saw a lovely presentation yesterday, of how these IT corporates in Bangalore are colluding with the state to de-legitimize, to push out the poor from the city of Bangalore. But those same people are at the forefront of framing policy, that.. that wants to urbanize India. That says that agriculture will only be commercially viable if, you know, instead of seven hundred million people, we have only twenty million people involved in agriculture; the rest must go to cities. So they're being pushed out of villages, and they're also being pushed out of cities. So, it's as if this imagination has no place for the.. the small consumer, or the no.. non-consumer.
Becker asks a question about whether there is conflict with what he perceives as the urban bubble.
Of course.. but before we go to the aspect of like the.. the rural situation here, within the bubble, as you said, I.. I seem to increasingly see some kind of conflict and antagonism sort of even within the bubble somehow, I mean even if that's a very narrow situation, but just two weeks ago, there was this, you know, spat between politicians and the CEOs of the city, and at another level I get the feeling that sort of the euphoria of the middle class in the city is also slightly subdued, there's more and more voices on the working conditions of call working.. call-centre workers etcetera. So do you think there's some kind of, you know..
Absolutely. When I say bubble, I certainly don't mean that all urban areas are bubbles of privilege, I mean within those urban areas there are bubbles of privilege, because obviously cities are going to be sites of the largest kinds of conflict, which may not necessarily be progressive political conflict. It may be just criminal outburst, you know? And it may just take the form of violence of poor on poor, or black on black in, you know, urb.. western cities. But, the thing is that.. yeah, exactly what I'm saying, that you.. you know, if you look at, for instance you look at.. at a city like Delhi or Bombay, where, overnight, suddenly you know, the.. the numbers are mind-boggling, I mean I'm a writer, I don't like dealing with numbers, but you've got to sometimes. And four hundred thousand people will be just evicted overnight, you know? The same thing happens in Delhi, and, the thing is that this whole.. this whole process of corporatisation, what it seeks to do is to take away the key decision making from politicians. Because however much we like to vilify politicians, at the end of the day, those guys have to go out and get votes. But the corporates don't. So how do you undermine, I mean, I was.. I.. I found it quite funny when somebody.. some.. some person in the audience who wasn't an Indian sort of said something about elections being the last, you know, sort of, the last.. let's say.. monument to demo.. democracy, whereas here elections have been turned into a kind of circus, you know, where it doesn't matter, you know, there isn't any party ideology. There is only a governing ideology and an opposition ideology. So depending on whether you're in the government or in the opposition, you say different things. So the Congress came to power this election promising.. I mean, riding the wave of this.. this anger against the BJP for its neo-liberal policies, for its promises.. policies of privatization. But then, the minute they came to power, I mean, even.. they hadn't even named the people who were going to be ministers, or even who was going to be Prime Minister, and they were fo.. you know, stocks started falling, it was all obviously coordinated cause even the television companies' own stocks were falling, and.. and.. and spokesmen had to come out reassure television that they were not going to radically change economic policy, you know? So, it's a.. you know, it's a very.. it's a very very..I think you really have to have new ways of looking, new tools of looking at what's going on politically.
Roy talks of the bubble within urban areas that are areas of privilege and cause conflict, and the lack of party ideology due to elections having been converted into a circus in India.
Becker asks a question about the digital divide.
Right. I mean you were saying that lot of this sort of IT hype in the.. in some of the cities you were mentioning is actually on the expense of the rural population. but then again I understand that there is like a.. big government sort of effort, drive, to actually introduce IT into the rural landscape, I mean with the argument that this would help better farming, weather, you know, market information. I'm aware that there's like a.. a high level of.. of.. of sort of a in a way of an information gap in the sense of a digital divide.. for education only, or for (indistinct), so do you think.. how could it work? Does it work?
Roy says that the introduction of IT into rural areas is due to motives driven by corporatisation of seeds and the need for surveillance after passing the Seeds Act. It will slowly make everyone illegal. Roy talks of breaching the threshold of surveillance and security that will lead to inevitable conflict
You know, I think it's important for them to introduce IT into rural areas for exactly the same reason that it was important for colonial governments to inclu.. introduce the railways and the roads. Because, if you think it's about actually enabling people to travel from here to there, it wasn't. It was to enable the extraction of raw material and take it to the ports and take it out. In the same way, we've seen the connection between IT, between being networked, and surveillance. Now, if you look at what else is happening, there's this.. there's this huge effort at corporatisation of agriculture, of agricultural land, as well as, you know, I mean sometimes you.. you look at this debate in a country like India on genetically modified crops, of course it's an important debate, the scientific debate about whether GM is good or GM is bad, but, actually the real thing is of how do you privatize seeds? How do you corporatise seed? They're planning to pass a Seeds Act, which will make it possible for.. impossible for farmers to create their own seeds, to trade their own seeds. It allows them.. it will allow the government security forces to raid the house of any farmer and arrest them if they have unaccounted for seeds. What that does is it makes, you know just like hawkers in the city, or like, all.. in all third world cities, seventy percent of the city is illegal, and at the mercy of a kind of network of corruption. Now they will transfer that to rural areas, where the majority of the population of this country will be living on sufferance, cause we'll all.. everyone will be illegal. You'll be forced to be illegal. Either pirate seeds, or trade illegally, or risk arrest. I mean, and risk arrest. Not or. So, in that case is very important for them to have identity cards, surveillance to know what's going on, because right now there's anarchy, in a way which is wonderful, you know, right? And.. and as a result of this, what is happening in India is also far away from this.. this.. this conference or a conference of this kind. What is happening in India is.. is spasms of violence, whether it's in Kashmir, whether it's in the North-East, and now whether it's across I think 18 states, you have, you know, the Maoists who recently stormed into Jehanabad and freed the prisoners, and they're calling in the air force, the army, to deal with a problem that is being created by these policies. You're.. you're creating, while you need, I mean all societies have had security and surveillance. But the degrees to which they have had them. Because you are creating a society of so much excess.. so much excess wealth and so much deprivation that, how are you going to police this conflict? And that conflict will not be re.. as I said, revolutionary. It can be along the l.. sectarian lines, ethnic lines, caste, or just pure criminality, or, you know, or the much hoped for class war, whatever it is.
Becker asks a question about the patent bill amendment's effect on the generic pharma industry.
Right. Well, Bangalore prides itself to be also a city of biotechnology, and really what we see is this kind of fusion of information technology and biotechnology. At the same time, India was sort of the target of bio-piracy famously, sort of, some of the most famous cases are from here. So.. the same time, there was.. last year there was this patent bill amendment which actually, you know, had a big effect on the status of the generic pharma industry in this country. So.. how.. how do you see the developments coming from there? I mean, I found it quite amazing. Obviously, some of the business communities think they will make some, you know, profit out of that..
Yeah, the thing is I think in all these issues now, we've got to stop thinking about India, Austria, Germany, America, you know? You're thinking, you know cause, these are really a collusion of elites, and what.. what is profitable for the Indian elite, can also be profitable for the American elite, you know? So the breakdown of these discussions does not take place along national borders, you know? And therefore it's necessary for.. you know, all these.. all these agreements in.. including the policing of nuclear weapons by America now, India's nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities by America and all these are.. are once again signs of 'how do you put down the revolts of the servants' quarters?', you know? Because just like colonialism, in India how many white British people were there? A few thousand. The only way they governed this country was because they had the collusion of elites, you know? So in a strange way, India has always been quite acquiescent to that. Like, in countries.. I mean, now countries but then colonies, in West Africa or in the Americas or in other places in the world, colonialism.. genocide was of.. often a precursor to colonialism. It didn't happen here, because we already had an exquisitely hierarchical society, you know? We already have a feudal society that.. whose differences are only being cemented by all this information technology and globalization and so on. It's not.. it's not creating new schisms, in a way.
Roy talks of the extension of the colonial elite, and the acquiescence of India to such a hierarchical society.
Right. So, what is suppressed at this conference.. We saw an interesting lecture just now about use of technology as a tool of social sorting, so in a way, I think they're.. they're analogous to, you know, the phenomenon of catered communities, for instance, something that we see in the United States, and I've seen in catered communities just here, you know, could be anywhere in the world, basically you know, so..
In fact in Bangalore I believe they.. there's a.. there's a.. kind of builder whose motto is 'we guarantee to settle you abroad', you know, 'we guarantee you that', the place we build for you won't look anything like India, you know? Yeah..
Right. So, let me see.. I mean, do you.. do you think that, just to go back to this.. this.. sort of what you were saying introducing railways is very mcuh analogous to the efforts of introducing IT, into the rural landscape, so are you actually.. is there sort of a visible effect, in the sense that like.. for instance settlements are being regrouped or sort of transformed through this...
See, I mean, I think it would be.. it would be.. you know, whatever the intention is, what the final use is, as we've seen through today, is different, because people do subvert the government's intentions or the state's intentions, you know? But I think what's.. what I find disturbing about conversations about technology are that they bleed politics out of it, you know? They bleed conflict out of it, it..it.. it almost.. it's almost like you're.. you're so in awe of that technology that you don't see that what it's doing is only furthering.. you know, already historical intent. It's not new in that sense. But, I think what.. I mean personally what I'm really interested in is what are the forms of resistance available to us, because in this three days, I think speaker after speaker after speaker has spoken of subversion as a form of resistance, you know? Which is very interesting. But I.. I.. doe.. is that an acknowledgment that there aren't any more overt forms of resistance available to us? Because I've.. I mean terrorism in whatever way it's been defined by the mainstream media and so on is.. you know that's an unacceptable definition to me, because what.. what it's done is to.. you know, here we live in a country where I've been closely associated with sort of Gandhian non-violent resistance, which everybody likes to give.. pin medals onto its chest and say 'oh, aren't these people wonderful' and.. you know. But the fact is that they've been discarded. They've been treated like jokes, you know? Whatever is happening continues to happen, and they are humoured. Now, the only kinds of resistance which anybody pays an attention to are violent forms of resistance, whether it's the militants in Kashmir, whether it's the insurgents in the North-East, or whether it's the Maoists today, you know? And when you talk about people who are left out of this digital world, you see there are people within the digital world who have complaints about surveillance and about how they're being watched and how they're being herded together and how they're being manipulated. Then you have people who are outside it, you know? The vast majority of the world in a way is still is outside it, is not been digitised, you know?
The farmers here, like, on the.. on the.. you know, on the margins of the city, I mean, they're not digitally connected but it has an effect on their life, as we've heard, their land is being categorised.. and it's a way to actually expropriate them.
Roy talks of the dematerialisation of the target.
So, the point is that, you know, like.. Even here, if you go from outside the conference to the toilet, you see the, you know, the people who are the cleaners and all that sitting on the steps in the khaki nylon saris, and you.. you know, like, you wonder.. the fact is that their lives are being micro-managed by what's going on inside, but they have no idea. And the reason they have no idea.. the fact is that that means the loss of a target for them. A loss of.. how.. how.. how do you conduct resistance when you don't know who is the target? Or when the target is a cable, you know? Can you be angry with a cable? Can you be angry with a camera? Can you be wha.. wha.. who do you vent your rage against, or who do you plot against, you know? So, it's a kind of dematerialization of.. of.. of a target even, and, I think, you know, the fact is that, you know, coming back to what I was saying about the strategies of resistance, you know, violent resistance is met with extreme violence by the state. But non-violent resistance is just chucked over into the bin. So, what are our strategies of resistance? And what are, I mean, at the end of the day, the fact is that all this is.. all this is a product of a religious belief in capitalism, which we're not allowed to say, you know? A religious busy.. belief in consumerism, and I don't know what.. you know, are we just bound into this space where our only strategy can be subversion? If so, then let's subvert big time, you know? Let's do it. Or let's discuss what we can do, because I.. I don't know, I mean I feel that even an overload of information is disempowering in the end, you know, if you know that even as you speak, then you start trying to ho.. you know like you make a best-seller list of resistance or disaster or sorrow, and everything has to be prioritised, cause there's so much information, and you know, it just becomes noise and meaningless.
Disembodied structures of control, Becker asks about.
Right. That's a question that this.. you know.. very urgent one I think right now all over the world for a social activist, you know, what forms of of resistance can there be against this sort of IT enforced neo-liberal religion, you know, not even ideology, and in a way, you know, I think your approach is somehow very poetic, sort of, form of.. of addressing it, and there's always this sort of two ways at looking at it, which are not necessarily antagonistic, but the question of you know, we're more and more in a way sort of ruled and controlled by immaterial sort of symbolic structures of control, and on the other hand.. so it would make a lot of sense to actually sort of you know in a way subvert it or in different ways address the symbolic level, but then again, you know, this can be easily dismissed you know, in a way you can put all the symbols in a hard disk and stow it away, and then again, you know, then the question is, you know, does it really make sense these days to you know in Europe to go on the streets, let's say, you know, are the streets any more sort of the locus of power, does that make a difference..
I mean, have they learnt, every time people go out onto the streets, the government just waits. They know that ok, now today's a holiday, tomorrow's a working day, they'll be back, and the other strategy, of course not.. not.. not new, but you know, whether it's in Kashmir or whether it's anywhere else, of buying off you know, the key players or key trouble-makers, seducing them out of the resistance movement, or killing them, you know, which is what happens in a country like India, where you have, I mean we.. we, as I keep saying, we.. we have.. everything is on offer here, you know? Democracy, fascism, civil war.. whatever you want, you know, you can get it. I mean talking about surveillance, if you go to Kashmir, they'll just laugh about our problems about being photographed, because there, it's like, you know, you can't move five kilometres without having an AK-47 in your face. There isn't a single Kashmiri boy, I don't think, that's been.. hasn't had the hell beaten out of him every week or so, you know. So then.. then how do you control that society? You know how they'll control it. They'll control it by creating a class of you know, up to now the government has approached it like a traditional battle, you know? The Kashmiri Muslims are terrorists and the enemy. Now it's different. Now it's let's create a.. a corporate elite. Let's create the divisions between them, and then that battle that they're fighting now will seem like an old one.
Roy talks of government methods to deal with resistance.
Becker ends the interview.
Ok, well, you know, you should have a chance to get your lunch also, I guess. So.. but, we could go on, it was very interesting...