Holy Bankers, Batman! Or Indian Fakers?

Via Daniel Simpson
on Dec 22, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

By Daniel Simpson

India isn’t just another country. Sometimes it can feel like a parallel universe. Here’s a scene from the State Bank of India in Rishikesh.

Check the reading matter of choice on the foreign exchange desk. Among traders at a Western banking behemoth, that might be a glossy lifestyle mag, or even cruder forms of porn. But this guy’s got a list of twenty commandments, beginning with one to get up at 4 a.m., and put in three hours of God-realization before the day job.

The text, composed by Swami Sivananda, instructs devotees to meditate cross-legged (if they can’t sit in lotus or siddhasana), and finish their practice with headstand and a shoulder-stand, followed by “twenty pranayamas”.

The impact on banking business is unclear, which suggests surprising parallels with the West. Take Europe’s biggest bank, HSBC. Its last boss was a priest, dubbed God’s Banker. He even authored books with spiritual twists, which according to the Financial Times “sought to reconcile serving God with serving Mammon.”

This didn’t stop his firm from stashing $11.5 billion in the first few months of 2011, while firing a tenth of its workforce to maximise profits.

HSBC prides itself on its “social responsibility” (though this is corporately  illegal). Its adverts once said: “collective action will be required from governments, businesses and individuals to stimulate the adoption of energy efficiency and clean-generation technologies to stabilize CO2 emissions.” But it’s done little to turn that talking into action. Because of our addiction to oil, coal and gas, cutting carbon means cutting the profits that bankers depend on, and the future wealth and pensions people dream of.

As an FT headline screamed a couple of years ago, our collective “Drive for growth ‘will ruin planet’.” Though it was quoting UK government advisers, their words were buried away as news in brief, to vanish down the corporate media memory hole. After all, they warned big business would destroy us, and that’s not what sells papers to the rich.

Fast forward to the start of this month, and the latest attempt to pretend that the world plans to do something to avert a “climate catastrophe”, while ensuring any such prospect is impossible. Leading the wrecking crew at UN talks in Durban was the world’s fabled “largest democracy”: India.

“How do I give a blank check signing away the livelihood rights of 1.2 billion members of our population?” asked its environment minister, refusing to sign up to legally binding emissions cuts, unless richer nations stopped polluting first. It’s an echo of infamous lines from 20 years ago, when the U.S. conspired to torpedo other summits: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.”

India claims to want solutions based on “equity”, but it’s obsessed with rampant economic growth, which does little for hundreds of millions of its poor. Like the sixth of Americans classed as “food insecure”, they don’t really count. While politicians and journalists froth about “India Shining”, farmers steeped in debt commit mass suicide, and starvation and malnutrition are endemic. The government leaves its surplus grain to rot, or exports it at subsidized rates that the poor are denied.

As one Indian writer observes: “Corporate Globalisation needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries, to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies. It’s called ‘Creating a Good Investment Climate’.”

The finest climate today is in Gujarat, where the economy basks in double-digit growth, and ministers give investors what they want, like access to land and resources (no matter who lives there). Home to roughly one in twenty Indians, Gujarat produces a quarter of exports. And it’s run by a Hindu hardliner, who oversaw genocide. The Economist seems to hope he’ll run the country. “He has yet to shed his polarizing image,” it coughs diplomatically, “but he has at least built up an enviable record on the economy.” All hail the Slumdog Billionaires!

So what of the words on the desk in Rishikesh? It’s fair enough to focus on transcendence, but unless we resist injustice we’re complicit. “Never fail to fulfil your duties,” says the Swami. If he doesn’t mean following orders, I agree.


About Daniel Simpson

Before he moved to London and took up yoga, Daniel worked as a foreign correspondent. He resigned from the New York Times to run a music festival, which he hoped would be a Serbian version of Woodstock. Instead, it got him embroiled with Balkan gangsters. This inspired him to flee the region and write a book, to be published in August 2012. Nowadays he mainly writes about yoga, and lives somewhere between the UK and northern India. You can read his previous articles here, or he's on Twitter as @danielcsimpson.


6 Responses to “Holy Bankers, Batman! Or Indian Fakers?”

  1. […] Cross-posted at Elephant Journal […]

  2. Eric says:

    Daniel, Nice one! I read years ago about how India exports the majority of its' grain just to pay off debt owed to the World Bank…so to hell with feeding their own starving people. the WTO and World Bank are the biggest scams. We're still operating from an Empire mentality rather than a spirit of true global community.

    But things like micro-financing and the Barefoot College do give me some hope.

    “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” Correction: the American way of life is not sustainable.

  3. Posted to Elephant Main Facebook Page, my Facebook page, Twitter, StumbleUpon.

    Bob W. Editor, Elephant Journal
    Yoga Demystified
    Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon

  4. Response from Facebook:

    Unnikrishnan Radhakrishnan Hi there! Im from India and I think this article is a big pile of stinking digital crap. Just another example of typical western sanctimonious talk which offers no solutions. I will admit that Im no big fan of the Indian govt's economic policies but the past 50 years have brought out a huge change in the life of millions. Our middle class is growing into the biggest in the world. Now then you have to ask yourselves how did India reach this pathetic state in the first place? The Europeans colonial powers ruined our traditional village governing systems, our economy, our agriculture & our textile industry. We were the richest land on earth (for many millenia) till the 16th century but we were reduced to utter penury by the time the white people left in 1947. This is one paragraph from the article that I loathe the most [emphasis added] : " ….asked its environment minister, refusing to sign up to legally binding emissions cuts, UNLESS RICHER NATIONS STOPPED POLLUTING FIRST. It’s an echo of infamous lines from 20 years ago, when the U.S. conspired to torpedo other summits: “The American way of life is non-negotiable.”…. I find it hard to believe that the author actually worked for the NYTimes when he compared the industrialized US from the 1980's to present day developing India. We have yet to bring a huge percentage of our population out of poverty and do you honestly expect our govt to take a position that would reduce the rate of that happening? Now I know only too well what global warming would do to our nation's coasts & water supplies but this is something that threatens the entire planet and it requires that all nations to come together. It is unreasonable for developed western nations to expect us to carry most of the burden fighting global warming. The west owes atleast this to us even as it still enjoys the wealth and prosperity it got (and still gets) from plundering Asia & Africa. So save us the rants of some wannabe yogi and offer us some real solutions. Thank you. Aum.

  5. Daniel's Reply on Facebook:

    Daniel Simpson: Thanks for responding. The real solution ought to be equitable, I agree. It's existed for a while, but few promote it: http://www.gci.org.uk/contconv/cc.html

    On India and the colonial legacy (and ongoing Western exploitation), I don't disagree – but the problems of resources and growth won't go away if the most populous nations on earth want the same excess as Americans, whatever the injustices involved. Hence the comparison I made – but I don't think India should shoulder most of the burden fighting climate change.

    All the best,

    Untitled Document <a href="http://www.gci.org.uk” target=”_blank”>www.gci.org.uk