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Big Business & Arms Deals, Not Poverty, Top Obama’s Agenda in India

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President Obama rounded off his three-day visit to India today by addressing a special joint session of both houses of India’s Parliament. Accompanied by some 250 business executives, the President’s visit to India is part of a ten-day tour of Asia to boost U.S. exports. Meanwhile a number of groups are protesting Obama’s visit to India, including some left political parties, survivors of the 1984 deadly Bhopal disaster, and the families of cotton farmers who committed suicide, partly as a result of U.S. agricultural subsidies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: President Obama rounded off his three-day visit to India today by addressing a special joint session of both houses of India’s Parliament. Accompanied by some 250 business executives, the President’s visit to India is part of a stated ten-day tour of Asia to boost U.S. exports. So far, President Obama has sealed some $15 billion in defense and trade deals with India that he said would create an additional 50,000 jobs in the United States.

Speaking before the Indian Parliament Monday, Obama emphasized that India had, quote, “emerged” and said he hoped to deepen economic security and democratic cooperation between the two countries.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am not the first American president to visit India, nor will I be the last. But I am proud to visit India so early in my presidency. It’s no coincidence that India is my first stop on a visit to Asia or that this has been my longest visit to another country since becoming president, for in Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging. India has emerged. And it is my firm belief that the relationship between the United States and India, bound by our shared interests and our shared values, will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. This is the partnership that I’ve come here to build.

ANJALI KAMAT: President Obama also noted how the relationship between India and the United States had changed over the decades.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just as India has changed, so, too, has a relationship between our two nations. In the decades after independence, India advanced its interests as a proud leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Yet, too often, the United States and India found ourselves on opposite sides of a north-south divide, estranged by a long cold war. Those days are over. Here in India, two successive governments, led by different parties, have recognized that deeper partnership with America is both natural and necessary. And in the United States, both of my predecessors — one a Democrat, one a Republican — worked to bring us closer, leading to increased trade and a landmark civil nuclear agreement.

ANJALI KAMAT: Obama also spoke about the influence that Mahatma Gandhi had on him, as well as on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Throughout my life, including my work as a young man on behalf of the urban poor, I’ve always found inspiration in the life of Gandhiji and his simple and profound lesson to be the change we seek in the world. And just — just as he summoned Indians to seek their destiny, he influenced champions of equality in my own country, including a young preacher named Martin Luther King. After making his pilgrimage to India a half-century ago, Dr. King called Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance “the only logical and moral approach” in the struggle for justice and progress. So we were honored to visit the residence where Gandhi and King both stayed, Mani Bhavan. And we were humbled to pay our respects at Raj Ghat. And I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as president of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared and inspired with America and the world.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama said India, more than any other country, had an interest in a stable Pakistan and Afghanistan. He said he welcomed India’s bid for Security Council membership but urged India to take a stronger position in condemning human rights violations in countries like Burma. He did not mention Kashmir in his speech to the Parliament, but in a news conference earlier in the day with the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Obama noted that the United States cannot impose a solution on this issue.

Meanwhile, a number of groups are protesting Obama’s visit to India, including some left political parties, survivors of the 1984 deadly Bhopal disaster, and the families of cotton farmers who committed suicide, partly as a result of U.S. agricultural subsidies. Some Maoists and Kashmiri leaders also called for a strike during President Obama’s visit.

For more, we’re joined from Chicopee, Massachusetts, by Vijay Prashad. He’s the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He’s the author of 11 books, most recently The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Prashad. Start off by talking about the significance of President Obama’s three-day trip to India.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks for having me, Amy.

Well, I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. It’s been quite a visit for President Obama and the First Lady. In Bombay, in Mumbai, they danced with schoolchildren. President Obama answered questions at St. Xavier’s College from the students. At one level, it’s been a great public relations tour.

During his speech in the joint session of Parliament, President Obama quoted from Mahatma Gandhi, saying, “Be the change you want to see.” And this is where things get a little more complicated, because whereas everything seems to be delightful on the surface and there’s a lot of talk of the two democracies coming closer, behind the scenes there are some trade deals that are being conducted that actually might be inimical to both India and the United States. And so, “be the change you want to see,” I’m not quite so sure.

ANJALI KAMAT: Vijay Prashad, President Obama traveled to India with 250 business executives. Can you talk about some of the deals that were concluded — trade deals, defense deals?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes. India is the world’s largest importer of weaponry, and the United States has been very keen to sell as much weaponry as possible, to close as many deals with India in next couple of years. One of the reasons is some of the Indian armaments are coming to a point where they’ll need to have either retrofitting or to be, you know, substituted. So, previously, India used to buy from Russia, largely, and from Europe, and the United States is very eager to enter this market. And this is perhaps a $50 to $60 billion market, already twice what the United States and India do in trade. So one of the main elements of the trade agenda, which the corporate executives went for, was arms deals. And already it seems some arms deals have been signed. One arms deal will perhaps be signed at the end of the year, and that is for 126 jet fighters. That deal will be about $10 billion.

The second set of deals are again about a very small group of people. And that is, this is a set of deals to enhance the lifestyle of very rich people in the urban centers. For instance, there’s a deal to build Harley-Davidson motorcycles in India. This is not for a motorcycle for the common person; this is a motorcycle for the affluent. So, thus far, the kinds of deals, the trade that we’ve seen being cut between India and the United States, benefit the arms industry, and they benefit the very rich. As far as ordinary people are concerned, “be the change you want to see,” I don’t think so.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. I read this article twice in the Times, when it said that the chief executive officer of Boeing, Jim McNerney, who also leads the President’s Export Council, greeted Mr. Obama when Air Force One touched down. I read it twice, because I was confused. The U.S. executives were greeting Obama when he came to India. But they timed their own executive meeting — among the leaders are Jeffrey Immelt, who is the chief executive of GE, which won a $750 million turbine order — they timed a conference in India to be there when Obama arrived. The significance of this? General Electric, Boeing?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, about five years ago, India and the United States signed a nuclear deal. And over the last five years, there has been a great deal of disagreement about what this deal is going to mean. As far as India is concerned, the United States carried a lot of water for the country in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to make sure that many of the kind of statutory problems were taken care of. India, on the other hand, has wanted to keep an open mind as far as where it’s going to buy its raw materials and machinery from. In other words, the Russians and the Europeans once again want to be suppliers to India for a very lucrative new nuclear industry complex. The United States has wanted to enter this arena, but it has found two problems. One problem has been that the Indian Parliament asked for all its suppliers to maintain liability for what they are selling in India. In other words, if there is a Bhopal-type accident, the corporation must take responsibility. The American companies, such as Westinghouse and GE, have been very loath to allow this kind of liability on themselves. They are saying, “We’ll only take responsibility if the machinery is broken, not if there’s an accident.” So this is the big reason why GE and Westinghouse have been such important players with the Obama trip to India. They are keen for the Obama effect to dazzle the Indian Parliament into allowing this liability question to come off the table.

A second thing, of course, is that GE is a — and Boeing are big manufacturers, especially Boeing, of military planes and military hardware. And once again, India has leaned typically towards Europe and Russia, for good reason, to buy military hardware. And again, they want Obama to pressure the Indian government. The reason they have been moving to Russia and Europe is that the Russians and the Europeans have been, if you can bear this word, less fickle with their arms sales. You see, what happened when India tested nuclear weapons in 1998 was the United States cut off sales of arms to India. So the Indian Parliament — and that is the arms buyers, the military and others — say, “We don’t want to get involved with the United States. The United States might cut off their supply to us at any point. Let’s continue with the Russians and the Europeans, who have less problems with things like nuclear testing.” So, the real reason why GE and Westinghouse are playing such a big role in the Obama trip is they are hoping very much that Obama will carry water for them in the Indian Parliament to pass the liability question aside and to move — you know, so that the United States gets the contracts and not Russia or the Europeans.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Vijay Prashad is joining us from western Massachusetts, South Asian history professor at Trinity College in Connecticut. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him. Then we’ll hear from Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian writer, in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is wrapping up his three-day trip to India in the midst of a larger four-country Asian trip. He’s headed to Indonesia tomorrow, to South Korea and Japan. We’re talking about the significance of the India trip now with Professor Vijay Prashad, who teaches South Asian history and international studies at Trinity College in Hartford.

I want to turn back to some of what President Obama said on Saturday. He was addressing the business summit in Mumbai.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And there still exists a caricature of India as a land of call centers and back offices that cost American jobs. That’s a real perception. Here in India, I know that many still see the arrival of American companies and products as a threat to small shopkeepers and to India’s ancient and proud culture. But these old stereotypes, these old concerns, ignore today’s reality. Trade between our countries is not just a one-way street of American jobs and companies moving to India. It is a dynamic, two-way relationship that is creating jobs, growth and higher living standards in both our countries. And that is the truth. The United States sees an opportunity to sell our exports in one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. For America, this is a job strategy.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, the Indian prime minister, Manmoham Singh, held a joint news conference with Obama on Monday in New Delhi. He also talked about strengthening economic ties between the U.S. and India.

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH: India is not in the business of stealing jobs from the United States of America. Our outsourcing industry, I believe, has helped to improve the productive capacity and productivity of American industry. And the new deals that have been struck, they all happen to be in infrastructure. And infrastructure today is the biggest bottleneck to the faster growth of India, to the faster growth of employment, and therefore, these deals that the President has mentioned are truly an example of trade being a win-win situation for both our countries.

ANJALI KAMAT: Vijay, your response? President Obama’s trip as a jobs strategy for the United States and the discussion on outsourcing?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the question of outsourcing has always been more, you know, fire than light. It’s not really been such a big part of either the Indian economy or the American economy itself. That is, just the outsourcing to India. As the people in India have said for the last five, six years, that India is being blamed for what is happening with the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China. So this is a question that needs to be dealt with with some empirical data. It’s not enough just to have, you know, this idea of outsourcing as a great boogeyman against, you know, the new globalized relations, etc. So I don’t feel like the outsourcing question should be front and center.

There are other issues. You know, for instance, right there on the streets in New Delhi, cotton farmers have been protesting. They’ve been protesting not only because of subsidies in the United States that prevent Indian cotton and textiles from coming in, but also they are protesting against the entry into India of large agribusinesses like Monsanto, that are trying to upgrade Indian agriculture, which means that, you know, you have much more expensive fertilizers, much more expensive irrigation systems. In a sense, you get industrialized agriculture, and it works against small farmers. So there are other issues that should be at the center of our discussion. I’ve always felt that outsourcing was the red herring. In that way, I agree with both the Indian prime minister and with Barack Obama that outsourcing is not the real issue. The problem is that neither Dr. Manmohan Singh nor President Obama took on the real issues, which are questions of big agribusiness and subsidies. It’s very ironic, by the way, that we now see the United States asking India to, you know, allow it to invest there for jobs strategy in America, and India is asking America to cut back on subsidies. Until about two or three years ago, the demands were exactly reversed.

ANJALI KAMAT: Talking about this issue of agriculture, one of the things that President Obama has been saying is that India should be a model for food sovereignty and talking about ushering a permanent green revolution. Talk a little bit more about these agriculture deals and what it means to say that India is a model for food sovereignty, when the vast majority of its citizens live well below the poverty line.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes, it’s not that there is insufficient food grains produced in India. The question is that most people don’t have enough in their pockets to buy those grains. In fact, perversely, the Indian government has been thinking of exporting food grains, even though starvation and hunger in India are at very high levels.

The real question coming from these agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill is the question the propriety rights. The United States and India signed a very hush-hush agreement in 2005 called the Umbrella Science Agreement. And this was the move to push the Indian — you know, the intellectual property law from a question of creative commons or open licensing to very restrictive, private control of patents. This has been a big issue between the two countries, especially — not so much the two countries, it’s a big issue between the agribusiness firms and the Indian government. And once more, the American government is brought into the position of having to lobby for agribusiness firms to push for India to, as it were, not strengthen, but change its intellectual property regime from one that was in the public domain to one that will move everything into the private domain. So when we talk about agriculture, we’re not really talking about seeds and farmers. What we’re really talking about here is property rights over things like seeds, property rights over things like fertilizer, etc. So it’s not about the actual things itself; it’s about who gets to control them, who gets to own them, and therefore, who gets to set a price when they sell it to small farmers, who increasingly are unable to buy the goods that come with these kind of patents.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Prashad, the amount of money that is going into the arms race, the nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India, the U.S. has decided to support India for full membership of the top four nuclear clubs, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Can you talk about how one fuels the other?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this is kind of a disturbing development, and it’s linked as well to the Afghan conflict. In other words, there are very many unsettled questions that bedevil India and Pakistan. Kashmir is one of them. The role of both countries in Afghanistan is another. The question of the border itself is an unsettled question. So, rather than move from those questions forward, the United States government and India have upped the arms race on the border. American support for India’s nuclear ambitions have, of course, threatened Islamabad. On the other side, America’s reticence to pressure Islamabad on questions like the David Headley extradition to India, on questions like the shutting down of the organizations involved in the 2008 attack in Mumbai, these silences and actions have threatened to increase and intensify distrust between New Delhi and Islamabad. In other words, there are some very clear issues that both India and Pakistan need to put their heads together and start dealing with. In fact, during the press conference, Dr. Manmohan Singh said that India is not afraid to discuss what he called the “K word” — in other words, Kashmir. So, let these be the leading parts of the equation and not questions of arms deals or pressuring India to enter into the Afghan conflict in a much more forward way, which is once again going to threaten Islamabad and defeat any possibility of confidence building between India and Pakistan.

ANJALI KAMAT: Vijay Prashad, you mentioned the demand for the extradition of David Headley. There’s also been demands for the extradition of Warren Anderson. And today, actually, there’s been a group of 400 survivors from the 1984 Bhopal tragedy who have been protesting Obama’s visit to India. They’re outside the Parliament.

Last year, we interviewed Sathyu Sarangi. He’s the founder of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action and a founding trustee of a free clinic for all the treatment — for the treatment of all those affected by the gas leak. We asked him to describe what happened in Bhopal.

SATHYU SARANGI: On the night of 2nd by 3rd December, 1984, over 27 tons of toxic gas leaked from this pesticide factory that was situated right next to where more than 200,000 people, poor people, lived. And this was a factory owned, designed and operated by Union Carbide Corporation USA. And during routine operations, water entered the tank, and because the safety systems were cut down or were very badly designed, and because the entire plant was under-designed, the water reacted with methyl isocyanate, which was stored in very high quantities, and there was a reaction, which then became a runaway reaction so that there was no control. And as it is, safety systems were under-designed, they were also malfunctioning or under repair. And this gas leaked, and like a 30-feet-high cloud, it covered about the entire city of all Bhopal, more than half a million people.

And there was no warning system in the factory. There was no one — no one from the factory was telling people to run in the opposite direction of the wind and not in the direction of the wind, as they did, and no one to tell them that they could actually protect themselves from the deadly impact of the gas by just holding a wet cloth over their nose and mouth. So the people got to know, only after they were surrounded by this cloud from all around, and they started running. And when they ran, as they ran, they inhaled more and more of this poisonous gas that sheared their lungs. And there was so much secretion of body fluids in their lungs that actually many people died, because they drowned in their own body fluids. And then there were lots and lots of people who died because of the effect on the brain. Women were aborting as they ran.

And it was the next — by the next morning, there were thousands of people dead. Within the first three days, between eight and ten thousand people died. And then in the subsequent years, more people died because of the damage that was caused to almost every organ in the body, because the poisons that people inhaled, they went into the bloodstream through their lungs.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, that was Sathyu Sarangi speaking to us when he was in the United States last year. Right now, he’s just come out from a protest outside the Parliament. He’s in New Delhi. We go to him live.

Sathyu, what are you calling for? Sathyu, can you hear me?

SATHYU SARANGI: Yeah, I can hear you now.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your demands? Why are you protesting President Obama’s visit?

SATHYU SARANGI: We were demanding positive action from President Obama on the continuing crimes of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical [inaudible] Bhopal. We wanted to tell him that it is his moral responsibility, as he promotes American business in India, to also ensure that American corporations abide by Indian law and Indian courts and to do something about Union Carbide’s absconding for the last 18 years and for Dow Chemical refusing to clean up in Bhopal and refusing to accept the jurisdiction of Madhya Pradesh state high court for the last five years.

AMY GOODMAN: Sathyu Sarangi, we want to thank you for being with us, founder of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, founding trustee of the free clinic for treatment of all those affected by the gas leak in Bhopal. And we want to also thank Vijay Prashad, professor at Trinity College in Connecticut of South Asian history and international studies.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to Arundhati Roy about the Maoist rebellion inside India. Stay with us.

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