War: Is the boycott call feasible?

IT WAS an e-mail that set us off. A broad coalition of people, as a mark of protest against the aggression on Iraq, had called for a boycott of goods produced by the chief aggressors — the U.S.A. and the U.K. Images of protestors pouring Coke and Pepsi into drains in France and Belgium and the American writer-filmmaker Michael Moore crying out "Shame on you, George Bush!" amidst cheers and jeers during the Oscar presentation egged us on. Mr. Bush's unabashed defence of the aggression (to protect "our way of life"), news of government contracts worth millions to American companies to "rebuild" post-war Iraq (Indian Government too is looking for its share of the pie), the Western media that seems all too eager to mouth pro-Bush sentiments, and the all out effort to stifle dissenting voices such as Al Jazeera were equally strong motivating factors.

Not that we marched on streets with anti-war placards, we just decided not to order an American fizzy drink when we went to eat a pizza and a pastry in the neighbourhood cake shop. A mango drink (the true blue Indian fruit) would be a good option. We rode high on our Boy Scout feeling until we read the small print on the bottle: that it was a subsidiary of a Cola giant! We didn't know when this particular drink, till recently Indian, was gobbled up by the Cola Vathapi. All the soft drinks stocked in the shop, we discovered, were American.

That set us thinking again: can we really boycott American products given their stranglehold on our economy?

We decided to do a reality check. We set out to a supermarket and read through the labels of a number of products. As we moved from one rack to another, we grew more and more dispirited. A good 80 per cent (if not more) turned had some link or another with the U.K. or U.S. — either as manufacturers or collaborators. Except for the masalas and pickles, the MNCs (most often American) had touched every other product. Finding a babycare product that was not American was next to impossible. Not many even know that our own Karnataka Soaps and Detergents has a baby powder. Moreover, don't we say "Johnson Baby Soap" without a second thought, as if it is a generic name? Most of the good old energy drinks we grew up on have some British or American link. Vaseline (whoever calls it petroleum jelly?), grandma's trusted treatment for varying skin conditions, is a Ponds (U.S.) product. Jams, squashes, and ketchups, including those with very desi names, turned out to be not so desi after all. Several brands of our attas and oils have American connections. On closer examination, you might find a "Cargill Seeds" somewhere on the packet. A majority of our detergents (whatever happened to Nirma?), cosmetics, and even life-saving medicines, we found, have American links. The rack that stored biscuits was chock a bloc with Brittannia products. In a small corner was Parle. We discovered, to our alarm, that there isn't a single sanitary napkin that we can use without feeling "guilty". All brands were either American or had a collaborative tie-up. So it looked like the business of buying was a "foreign trip" all the way, from soft drinks to hardware.

A local soft drink manufacturer, who, ironically enough, is also a distributor of Pepsi and Coca-Cola, further confirmed what we had seen in the supermarket. "I had to take on the distributorship of American aerated drinks to survive in the market," says the man who does not want to be named. "For the last 15 years I have been making my own essence-based soft drinks and it was doing considerably well. But Pepsi and Coke, with their price undercutting and advertising network, are all equipped to ruin the local enterprises." So, he was left with just one option: to take up the Pepsi-Coke agency, thereby retain control over the market he had struggled to establish, and push a carton or two of his own drink along with these brands. (Note how the recent Coke ads target the rural market even as they provide good "entertainment" to the urban viewers.)

So the question remained: can we boycott American goods given their deep penetration into not only our markets, but our very commonsense itself? Is there a running away from the simple American logic, as a columnist put it: "What is good for Monsanto is good for the Indian farmer and the consumer."

Those who argue for the boycott are themselves well aware of these questions. Writer U.R. Ananthamurthy, who has been vocal about his anti-war stance, says: "Manchester mills closed down when Gandhi gave a boycott call on foreign goods during the freedom struggle. But the situation is not the same now given what multinationals have come to mean." The movement for boycott of U.S. and U.K. goods, he believes, is for now an "emotional and a moral gesture" with a limited goal. "But it does have the potential to grown into a larger movement."

Noam Chomsky, one of the world's greatest intellectuals, often known to take bold anti-American stances much to his government's discomfiture, replied to Metro Plus through e-mail: "If a boycott becomes more than symbolic, it will surely be noticed."

Bhanu Pratap Das, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and a human rights activist, says: "One area where there are absolutely no alternatives to American goods is computers. The monopoly of Microsoft and Intel on the software and hardware industry is so high that you will simply have to stop using computers if you have to boycott American goods in toto." But he believes that the movement can make an impact if, to begin with, the targets are limited to, say, soft drinks and fast foods, the most visible signs of Americanism. The situation, he admits, is far from what it was in 1977, when Coca-Cola made an exit from the Indian market since the government was then not willing to slavishly accept all its terms. One may recall here that a drink called 77 was launched in India to replace Coke. The man who then spearheaded the movement that kept Coke out of the country for over a decade has, ironically, done a complete volte-face now.

Economist Vinod Vyasulu says: "Even if we decide to boycott American products, it may not mean a big economic difference given the strength of these companies now. Nevertheless, if one decides to demonstrate one's protest, one should still go ahead whether or not it has an economic impact. It is more in terms of sending a signal that we are anti-war."

P.V. Unnikrishnan, a doctor who visited Iraq in mid-February to do a humanitarian assessment of the impact of sanctions, is part of People's Health Movement, which has released a list of companies and products to be boycotted. This is a worldwide movement across 90 countries, billed "people's sanctions on U.S. and U.K.". Such an initiative, he argues, is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is a peaceful method of protest that a large number of people can be part of, without coming on to the streets. Secondly, the U.S., which does not heed the U.N., listens to big financial corporations that pump millions into the Republican election campaign. And there are enough indications not to be too cynical. A Pepsi manufacturing unit with a $36.3 million turnover in Thailand, he points out, was forced to close down because of massive scaling down in sales. "But this initiative does demand that you make a little of sacrifice for a period of time," says Dr. Unnikrishnan, such as giving up chocolates and soft drinks.

Didn't economist E.F. Schumacher write in his book Small is Beautiful?: "The foundations of peace cannot be laid by universal prosperity, in the modern sense, because such prosperity, if attainable at all, is attainable only by cultivating such drives of human nature as greed and envy, which destroy intelligence, happiness, serenity, and thereby, the peacefulness of man."

Not habitually reaching for the Johnson Baby Powder or that cool bottle of Coke may not be easy. For old habits die hard, and newly acquired ones — powered in many insidious ways by corporate conglomerates and endorsed by our cricketing and filmi icons — are even more stubborn. But so is optimism, tempered though, by a realistic estimate of the ground realities. "It was people's resistance that at least delayed the war. It can stop it too," says Dr. Unnikrishnan.

Too complex an issue

K.V. AKSHARA, playwright and director at the internationally-reputed theatre institution, Ninasam, Heggodu, a triumphant local initiative, had this to say:

Despite the wide reach of the American market, I do believe that it is possible to stay away from American products, at least to the extent of making an impact. But the prerequisite for this is a collective will, which does not seem to be there at this moment.

Why so? is perhaps a more difficult question to answer. Because this question has a wider implication in understanding the contradictory nature of multiple responses to what we have been calling globalisation. In many instances of "combating the global" we have been seeing opposite tendencies working simultaneously.

Two years ago, we had a movement to save the Tunga from mining projects here in Shimoga District. Once, 10 people from my village went, hiring a taxi. After reaching Shimoga, they dispersed with the understanding that they would all come back to the same point at a particular time. When they got back, one person was yet to come. He came back hours later. He initially gave some excuse, but during the return journey, he revealed the reason for his delay. It turned out that after the meeting, he had gone around Shimoga city, shop to shop, frantically searching for the cheap and best "Chinese bicycle" he had been told about.

When I first heard this story, it struck me as a metaphor of our own contradictions. It was only reaffirming the fact that we have still not been able to develop a unified response to the threats of globalisation.