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Dec 01

 

Where have
all the coconuts gone?

Bindu makes a case against globalization in the context of Auroville

"It is Rs 9 at the Pour Tous snack bar, Rs 10 at the Ganesh Bakery, and Rs. 11 at the Visitors' Centre. We refer, ladies and gentlemen to the price of Coca-Cola at various places in Auroville" announced the "Akademic Genius Brothers" - a community cabaret - with obvious sarcasm.

 

Hardly five years ago Coca-Cola was not available anywhere in Auroville. One stopped for a sip of green coconut at Vinod's organic food shop or a chai at Ganesh Bakery in Kottakarai. Today, Vinod's shop has changed from an exclusively organic food outlet to a mini super mart where, as in Pour Tous, the community's main grocery store , one finds chocolates from USA, pasta from Italy, olive oil from Spain, apples from South Africa and tinned sausages from Australia. Vinod no longer sells green coconuts because..Ganesh Bakery while continuing to supply chai has invested in a huge fridge which is stocked with Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, which are increasingly becoming the preferred beverage for thirsty Aurovilians. An Auroville Village Action Group study indicated that the sale of green coconuts has drastically dropped in the neighbouring village of Kuyilapalayam as the villagers too, seduced by invasive advertising, opt for Coca-Cola to quench their thirst.

Coca-Cola, long recognized as a symbol of the global economy, signals Auroville's mute acceptance of the prevailing economic order in India and the world. In the early nineties, when India made its first hesitant step towards opening its market to the global economy, I confidently assumed that India was too diverse, too gargantuan and unmanageable in its economic base to succumb to the homogenizing effect of globalization. Today, as India increasingly frees up its markets, allowing the powerful tentacles of the corporate global economy to reach out to the most inaccessible villages, I no longer have the blithe confidence that India can so easily weather the changes of globalization.

To be sure, the initial effects of a global economy or globalization have been positive. As with the political colonization by the British, this recent economic colonization has shaken up the country from its lethargic stupor of inefficiency and corruption that were the hallmarks of its socialist economy. At first sight, a free market, by virtue of open competition, makes available better quality goods at lower prices. But there is more to globalization or a so-called free market economy than meets the eye.

The concept of a free market stems from the long-standing theory of foreign trade that it is economically advantageous for products to flow from the places where they are most efficiently produced to the places where they are most needed. For centuries, this policy did not adversely affect the quality of human life in individual nations as the volume of foreign trade was small. In modern times, the advances made in technology, transport and communication facilities has shrunk the world, and with the saturation of the markets of the developed world, corporations have turned their attention to the teeming populations in developing countries as potential consumers who can further their economic growth . Consequently, an aggressive policy of foreign trade, based seemingly on a "free market" system but in reality dictated by corporate power, has come to dominate the world economic order.

A free market or an open competitive market implies a capitalistic economic system that in turn implies the accumulation of capital as the primary aim of economic activity. It further means that corporations that have a greater capital at their disposal have a greater say in the market. Viewing corporations as "engines" powering globalization, social thinker, Tony Clarke, points out that "70 percent of global trade is controlled by just five hundred corporations; and a mere 1 percent of the transnational corporations on this planet own half the stock of foreign direct investment". Furthermore, in their bid to maximize economic growth, corporations encourage unbridled consumption and insidiously target a change in the mind-set of people through massive advertisement campaigns. Clarke estimates that "transnationals spend well over half-as-much money in advertising as the nations of the world combined spend on public education."

What is deliberately overlooked by the money-spinning corporations, and remains an issue that has not received sufficient public attention and debate, is the fact that the limited resources of the world cannot sustain continued economic growth. What goes largely unchallenged is the concept that greater economic activity (measured by the Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product of a nation) means a healthier economy. If economic growth were the only criterion of a society's health, then activities such as the depletion of natural resources, the making of bombs and armaments, the selling of body parts of human beings and animals, would all be justified while other activities such as unpaid household work and child care, production of food to be consumed etc. would be regarded as undesirable since they do not command a monetary value. Not surprisingly, the greater economic growth in the world today has been at the cost of the environment and the poor who are marginalized by the global order. The United Nations Devlopment Programme's (UNDP's) Human Development Report this year poignantly exposes how globalization has worsened the human condition in many countries.

Global financial and trade institutions namely the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization are all controlled by a handful of developed or to be precise, "over-developed" nations that protect their own interests. Economist Jerry Mander points out that loans from the World Bank "are granted only to countries that agree to dismantle their economic and social structures and redesign them according to an imposed free market/free trade ideology. The international humanitarian institutions of the United Nations are emasculated from doing any real good by the fact that they have no economic power.

In short, as poet and ecologist Wendell Berry puts it, that those who believe in a global economy believe "a farm or a forest is or ought to be the same as a factory.that for all practical purposes a machine is as good as (or better than) a human; that the industrial standards of production, efficiency and profitability are the only standards that are necessary; that the nature of the ecology of any given place is irrelevant to the use of it; that there is no value in human community or neighbourhood; and that technological innovation will produce only benign results. .that knowledge is or ought to be property and power.that education is job-training.that the summit of human achievement is a high-paying job that involves no manual work."

I fear Aurovilians are ignorant of the destructive forces that are behind globalization, or worse still take a laissez faire attitude towards it. If we continue to stock our shelves with imported goods ignoring local goods, if we continue to subscribe to globalization without sufficient thought or public debate, we make a complete mockery of our own collective economic experiments and our ideals of a socio-economic system where "money is not the sovereign lord".

I admit that for many Western Aurovilians, it is indeed tempting to finally be able avail of the food that they are culturally used to. But, one should realize that not all, especially those on a "maintenance" salary from the community, can afford the imported goods that are now available. More importantly, if we are here to bring into being a new world, if we are here for the founding of a truer world order, then we should not blindly accept what is being dictated to us by the world economy. We should have the courage to experiment, as the Mother wanted us to, with a local self-sufficient economy. While there are as yet no fool-proof formulas on how to achieve local self-sufficiency, there is a sizeable bank of knowledge on how communities can manage local economies. It is true that the green coconuts can still be found, but they may not be for long if the advocates of globalization continue to have their say. Without resistance from conscious individuals and local communities, soon not only coconuts but whole coconut plantations may disappear, to be replaced by shopping malls.

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