December 22, 2011

Holy Bankers, Batman! Or Indian Fakers?

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.

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