Sunday, 15 November 2009

OF MARKETS AND SOCIETIES


OF MARKETS AND SOCIEIES
The next time you enter a shopping mall, remember that there's a silent battle going on between the retail giant and your neighbourhood grocer who might not offer the shine of the superstore, but possibly won't mind to deliver goods at your doorstep on credit, simply out of trust, and not because of any credit card they accept in the malls. And there are similar such battles all over the world between the 'big' and the 'small' --- battles that evolve around the 'market'. Rajni Bakshi's recent book Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom tries to offer us some perspective about the markets in the context of globalisation, and the alternative views that want to curb the dominance of 'free market' and make economy more humane.

The author, who is known for her writings on a multitude of issues, began her “journey”, as she puts it, in the summer of 1998, when there were protests outside the Enron's power plant in Dahbol that was allegedly sanctioned through corrupt methods. But the protests were defeated and that, according to Bakshi, became her “turning point... as the chronicler of struggles” where rural communities demanded control over water, forest and land of their neighbourhoods. This bit of information in the Author's Note sets the tone of what the reader could expect from the book.

Divided into seven chapters, this book enlightened me about range of issues --- the ancient market system as was in Greece or in India, and the American 'gift culture', the flaws of 'free market', the efficacy of corporate social responsibility; the affect of consumerism on this planet. There are valuable insights of those people who ventured to try fix the problems that ail the modern day markets where currency reigns the supreme. From Wall Street icon Geroge Soros to Nobel laureate Bangladesh's Muhammad Yunus, the author has effortlessly dealt with the initiatives and views of several of such greats who have challenged the concept of 'free market'.

Soros, interestingly, has been one such person despite he being a star of the 'free market' system. As Bakshi writes, Soros has been persistently warning the world about the instability of capital markets which in turn will affect societies and democracy. Soros's view on “making rules for common interest”, in contrast to “improving rules for self-interest” when it comes to competition, makes for an interesting read.

Bakshi has done well in bringing together similar views about cooperation and competition, as that of the Dalai Lama in the chapter titled Competing Compassionately. The dialogue between the Dalai Lama and some of the business leaders highlights the spiritual leader's views on cooperation and empowerment where he says that there cannot be limitless giving to another without any kind of initiative on part of the recipient. The author then goes to explore the principles of cooperation-competition that laid the foundation of the VISA card venture that began in the 1960s. There's an incisive section that deals with the relevance of the cooperative movement. The stories of Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), Mondragon cooperatives of Spain, and the collective arrangements of the warkaris during the annual march to Pandharpur provide apt examples for the discussion.

Among other chapters that I found interesting was the one titled Cosmopolitan Localism of which I mentioned at the onset of this review. Here, Bakshi dealt with the issue of a distressed local economy that is often overshadowed by the bigger economy --- what the Americans call Main Street versus the Wall Street --- with a global perspective. Whether it is the plight of the farmers in central India or that of those in the USA, the issue is the conflict of mindsets and priorities, says Bakshi. The author has nicely interwoven the stories of several such cooperation across the world.

But I am particularly fascinated by the story of one Aaron Feuerstein, who rebuilt his gutted factory in the USA in mid 1990s, did not retrench the employees, rather paid them their salary during the reconstruction. Needless to say the employees returned their gratitude by working hard to double the production. Aptly titled Who Cares... Wins! the chapter provides examples of how conventional business leadership that only thinks in terms of profit can learn few things from the humane approach of some of the entrepreneurs who decided to walk the Main Street and flourish. It is here that Bakshi rightly points out that the corporates, who talk about their social responsibility, often tend to lobby for trade and investment rules that lead to inequity and curtailing of freedom for the smaller players in the market. The recent turmoil over land acquisitions across India proves the point.

All in all, this book is not just about stories. The author has made a sincere effort to deal with many questions from an Indian perspective that could interest experts and lay-yet-curious readers alike. The book isn't difficult to comprehend as Bakshi has provided sufficient space in discussing the issues in simple language. All I can hope that the book prompts some of the the market players to understand the need to serve the society rather than making society subservient to the cycle of greed and profit.

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Book: Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom
Author: Rajni Bakshi
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 447
Price: Rs 450