What do the spate of Occupy movements around the world have to do with a group of protesting Indian fruit growers back in the mid 1990’s? Well, at first glance, perhaps nothing. But for me, it is probably closer to everything. With the benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t take long to unearth the common underlying thread in these stories, one that has prompted action in the struggle against imbalance, social injustice, and quid pro quo economics, which first rose up on Wall Street and has since gone global.
In March 1996, I travelled by bicycle along India’s west coast from Mumbai to the subcontinent’s southern tip. After a routine descent from Maharashtra state’s Deccan Plateau towards the estuary of the Vishishthi River, I boarded a small ferry in the town of Dabhol. Dabhol, or at least the headland on the other side of the river, was to become the home of India’s largest power project, a fact often trumpeted by local, and regional politicians alike. Now, anyone who lives in India, or has travelled there will be aware of the electricity supply problems that plague the countryside, leaving rural areas with lengthy daily disruptions in order to benefit the major cities, a practice commonly referred to as load shedding. So, one would think a power plant to be a good thing for all.
But, on that particular day, mango farmers and fishermen gathered along the roadway. They were part of the local population who saw, and were already experiencing the negative side effects of what was being heralded as an overwhelmingly positive initiative. They opposed the project, and its American backer, a company that I had heard of, but knew very little about. The company was Enron.
Unlike the Occupy movement, the complaints of Dabhol locals were simple and direct: pollution from the plant was ruining the local mango crop, and killing local fish stocks. As much as the Dabhol plant symbolized to some a change from the old socialist and corrupt India to the new capitalist and transparent one that benefitted the poor with jobs and financial compensation for expropriated land, it devolved into a case of environmental negligence, rampant cronyism, and allegations of both political and corporate corruption. It left the local economy in tatters, and over fifteen years later, the project still has not lived up to expectations. The power plant is not fully operational, Maharashtra State’s electrical power problems are arguably still the worst in the country, and the plight of local residents has worsened.
The story of Enron is now one for the history books. Among other allegations at Dabhol, and in the true spirit of baksheesh, opponents accused the company of bribing officials, and charging exorbitant electricity rates. These were business practices that should, and could have been a warning perhaps, if they were taking place in some place other than rural India.
In December 2001, Enron, the institution worth over $100 billion and voted by Forbes magazine as America’s most innovative company six years in a row, filed for bankruptcy. It seems that the company’s innovative tendencies also included entrenched, systematic accounting fraud. Its legacy became not that of one of the world’s largest energy, commodity and services companies, but one of corporate corruption and fraud. The business tactics and methodology used in the handling of the Dabhol power plant seemed to be consistent in the way Enron did business. For me, it was as simple as that.
More recently, barely two weeks ago, and in the latest example of corporate greed with criminal underpinnings, hedge fund tycoon and self-made billionaire Raj Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11 years in prison on insider trading charges – the largest prison term so far handed down for such a case. In addressing the court, US district judge Richard Holwell stated, “his crimes and the scope of his crimes reflect a virus in our business culture that needs to be eradicated.”
The question has been posed: was this an isolated incident, or part of a wider culture of greed? With Enron sealing the fate of former “Big Five” accounting firm Arthur Anderson, and Rajaratnam’s conviction paving the way for ex-Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta’s guilty verdict on associated civil fraud charges, my guess would be that many of the world’s Occupy protesters, as well as rational and honest individuals of both the 99% and the 1%, see it as closer to the latter. While many Occupy groups meet daily to reaffirm their cause and stay on message, media and some opposing their protests criticize them for not having one that is clear enough.
For me, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether they articulate it to the media’s standards or not, they are protesting greed, and I would hope we take note. Often, real issues and themes can be found through the nuances of actions and events. The Occupy movement’s method of tugging at the shirt tails of democracy may not be to everyone’s liking, but what embryonic movement, whether democratic, economic, or environmental, ever was?
Inequality is both a perception, and for many of the less fortunate around the globe, a reality. The irony being that, as a perception, it is no less real for the individuals involved. We should heed the warnings of corporate greed and growing inequality. Now is the time to turn the lessons learned from hindsight into some decidedly honest and inspiring foresight. Perhaps then, and only then, will we disprove the adage that man learns nothing from history. I prefer to believe that we, as a society, will “get it,” but only if we choose to recognize the message.
Who could have guessed that the concerns of some fruit-growing rural villagers on the west coast of India could have pointed to the corporate corruption at Enron? If the Indian government had listened, if the world had known, and if anyone had perhaps cared, the whole Enron debacle might have been recognized for what it was, and much sooner.