Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mining profits and a new Goan social order

“So!” I said, beaming at my journalist friend, “What do you think of the Goenchi Mathi Permanent Fund (GMPF)?” I was somewhat confused for a moment when the smile on his face turned into a sneer. “They must be joking,” he responded. “Mining is serious business, man; not a simple procedure of digging up mud and selling it! It is not going to be possible for a bunch of villagers to manage the complex processes of mining.”

This answer converted my confusion into disappointment. I had assumed that this journalist, who has his heart in the right place and a ringside view of the scandalous operations of state power and the mining industry, would understand that the GMPF deserves a chance. Further, he seemed to have misunderstood the concept entirely. To the best of my understanding, the GMPF does not propose that residents of mining areas undertake mining but that all the proceeds from mining be funnelled into the Permanent Fund. Simply put, the GMPF suggests that the soil of Goa should not be considered the property of either the leaseholders of the mine or that of an abstractly understood state. Rather, it should be considered the property of the people as well as their unborn descendants. Thus, any profits from mineral wealth should go directly to the current citizens and subsequent generations.

These are great ideas that need to be encouraged for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the GMPF represents a challenge to the hegemony of neo-liberal values that have been ascendant for a while. The GMPF does not represent an anti-capitalist vision, but envisions an industrialism that is put to the benefit of the common person rather corporate profit. Thus, the GMPF does not represent a ban on mining but a responsible conduct of mining, and a conscientious utilisation of the profits that accrue from this industry. The argument for the Permanent Fund rests on the assertion that the privatisation of the huge profits from mining is obscene, and thus renews the agenda of the welfare state. Further, the GMPF asserts a truth that seems to have been forgotten: the state does not exist for its own sake. The state is a creation of the citizens and exists for their benefit. The state is not the owner of the resources of the land; it is merely an institution established to administer these resources in the best interests of all individuals. The state exists for the citizens, and not the other way around.

Despite the enthusiasm one might have for the GMPF, it needs to be recognised that it is a concept that is still in flux and developing. Take, for example, the suggestion that in addition to creating a fund, the income from mining be converted into a basic income transferred to every Goan household. This is a great idea, as it assures an income to households that are in poverty. The suggestion of a basic income is being implemented in various parts of the world largely because it asserts the principle that all individuals are entitled to a minimum basic standard of living and, more importantly, it cuts out on the bureaucracy—and attendant corruption—that accompanies subsidies.

And yet there are some problems with this proposal. The GMPF seems to suffer from an upper-caste bias in that it does not, as yet, move beyond the realm of formal equality. In other words, while formal equality is an inalienable part of contemporary democracy, we also need to recognise that in practical terms, not everyone is equal. Poverty is not born merely from economic deprivation but primarily from social exclusion, and any attempt to redress poverty and create the space for the equal treatment of all persons must also provide additional support to marginalised groups. 

It would make the GMPF that much more appealing if it recognised that there are multiple communities in Goa, and especially in the mining areas, that would benefit from a disproportionate expenditure in their favour. I am referring especially to the scheduled communities (castes and tribes). These communities have a right to an excess spending of the GMPF in their favour. This spending need not necessarily be in terms of an enhanced basic income. Rather, it could be expressed in the utilisation of the resources of the fund to specifically address the socio-economic deprivation that has been the lot of these communities for centuries. The Goa Foundation, which is promoting the idea of the GMPF, would do well to incorporate the notion of affirmative action into the basic structure of the fund. To do so would take it so many steps closer to the articulation of a just welfare state.

The GMPF deserves a chance because it is offering us a new democratic start. So often in the case of electoral politics, we grumble that there is no choice. The GMPF may not be electoral politics, but it is still an intervention in the realm of politics. Indeed, if implemented, it may in fact bring about the social changes necessary to restructure the way in which electoral politics is conducted today.

(A version of this post was first published on the O Heraldo on 11 Dec 2015)

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