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Now, here is contamination of another kind

Imitation of Western lifestyles is seen as ‘development’ and desirable. Look at the proliferation of junk food outlets. In the cities, every schoolchikd’s idea of ‘celebration’ of a birthday is taking friends to a fast food outlet for pizza, pasta (made of nutritionally deficient maida or refined flour) and a cola drink. Call it brainwashing or ‘contamination’ of the mind – the latter is in fact the larger danger, says Sakuntala Narasimhan

South African Jane is visiting her son in the US and getting her papers checked for entry at American immigration. Her baggage includes some choice snacks from her native land. The officials at the entry point examine her packets and slit open one that has roasted and spiced nuts. Passing the contents through a sieve, they discover tiny insects and immediately confiscate the stuff, saying the insects will contaminate the continent.

Jane is devastated, of course, but her pleas that she went to a lot of trouble to prepare the delicacy for her son, fall on deaf ears. The packet is thrown into the dustbin. Pondering on this incident, I am remembering contamination in the reverse direction that has caused a lot of distress to countries in the developing world.

Canada does not count as a ‘developing’ nation but I recall meeting a Canadian farmer who was slapped with a huge demand for compensation when crops in his field showed genetically modified characteristics. The multinational that manufactures this genetically modified seed variety accused him of ‘stealing’ their patented seed. The truth was that genetically modified seeds had blown across his field (from an adjacent farm) and contaminated his crop.

The case made headlines some years ago, with multinational monitor groups expressing outrage at the accusation. When it comes to fighting court cases, mammoth corporations have an edge, they can afford to engage lawyers at fancy fees to fight for their claim for compensation. Individual farmers are at a clear disadvantage in proving their innocence. There are innumerable examples of large agri-businesses and corporations enticing indigent farmers in African countries to sow their ‘modified’ seeds with promises of large harvests and huge returns.

Once the farmers agree (they are even offered interest-free loans and other freebies) they are in the clutches of the corporations, they are trapped, with unconscionable debts and face ruin. American agribusiness persuaded an African country to sow an ‘improved variety of tomatoes’ for getting larger crops, and were even enticed with a free supply of the first lot of seeds. That was, of course, not the end of it (corporate altruism is seldom without strings) and the ‘beneficiaries’ discovered to their dismay that they needed a mechanical harvester to pluck the produce (which had to be imported against a loan).

Slowly, slowly, this is how the chains tighten to strangulate and create permanent indebtedness. Magazines like Multinational Monitor (published by an organisation founded by famous activist Ralph Nader) routinely expose these aspects of corporate dealings that widen the gap between the rich and the poor instead of reducing it on grounds of equity). This is also a kind of ‘contamination’ of social norms and justice, in the poorer regions of the world.

Go to any remote village in the interior of India, where there are not even proper approach roads, and you will find even the village grocery store housed in a thatched hut, carrying coke and cola drinks – because it has become a prestige issue to spend money on these junk products, after watching ads on TV (and TV is the only diversion even for villagers). I have seen poor farm hands that do not have money to feed milk to their children, buy cola drinks instead, because, as one coolie remarked, “It gives us pleasure to drink something that the rich drink”.

This, too, is a form of ‘contamination’ of the mind, through the creation of wants and cravings that enrich multinational companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Who monitors this kind of ‘contamination’ of the mind? What about ethics in promoting products that are nutritionally deficient but enrich multinational companies who rake in profits from the developing world and repatriate them to the West? Two generations ago, villagers drank lassi to quench their thirst; it was healthy, wholesome and cheap. Today, few do. Due to ‘contamination’ of preferences in the name of pseudo ‘progress’.

There are no officials (like those at the immigration counter when foreigners enter) to block the entry of junk products that only enrich the manufacturers abroad. I remember when Coca Cola entered the Indian market. I was a schoolgirl, and the coke company came around distributing, to every schoolchild, free coke as well as cute mini-pencils with the Coke logo on them. We were all asked to line up outside our classrooms, to get our free drinks. I still have that mini pencil with the logo, half a century later.

That was no less than contamination of the mind. I have written earlier about my maid servant whose infant was malnourished. I gave her Rs 10 to buy some milk; she spent the money on buying herself a tetra pack of cola drink. When I chided her, she retorted, “Don’t you people drink coke? I also wanted to see what it tasted like; I gave some to my child and he also relished it…” If she thinks there is pleasure in buying something that has no nourishment, what is it if not ‘contamination’ of the mind?

As I said, there are no checks to monitor the entry of junk products into developing countries. ‘Free market’ and globalisation  of trade are the mantras that dominate today’s international exchanges. The powerful countries of the West (which house the large multinational companies) force the poorer nations to ‘open up’ their countries in the name of trade. Contamination can be of different kinds – not just physical but also mental and attitudinal.

April – June 2022