Bye-bye Facebook, Monsanto!

What’s behind India’s new-found assertiveness?

First it was Facebook. India’s potentially enormous, and as yet largely untapped, internet and mobile phone market will see about half a billion people come online over the next few years (I hope soon to write at some length about its implications). And this in the country that will enjoy the world’s best economic growth for the next two decades.

Mark Zuckerberg was salivating over this juicy prospect and launched a portal called ‘Free Basics’ that tied the user to Facebook’s domain in exchange for free online access. Except of course it wasn’t free because Facebook decided what sites could be accessed and would eventually have its own access to the most valuable of all commodities: the users’ saleable metrics and private information, the bread and butter of Facebook’s business.

The ambition was breathtaking: tie up a completely new emerging market sector of subcontinental internauts and justify it by claiming to be charitable. Zuckerberg apparently bloviated that poor Indians couldn’t afford bandwidth so he would play Lady Bountiful and graciously give it to them. It was, with the impractical restrictions, incredibly paternalistic and ‘colonialist’ in mentality (if one was an Indian looking to be historically insulted).

But Zuckerberg was wrong. Bandwidth in India is actually cheap – about $1 per month for the 100mb he was offering in exchange for people’s entire lives. Smartphones and computers are cheap as well at $50 and up (and getting cheaper), and folk in India are perfectly competent in setting themselves up on the net, thank you very much. An abiding memory is visiting a small town on one of Modi’s pre-election rallies, and driving from the helipad in convoy to the venue past lines of people in bare feet or sandals, in dusty cheap clothes, all filming us on their smartphones. That was 2013; those people will have upgraded several times since then. ‘Free Basics’ indeed!

Either Zuckerberg was genuinely ignorant about India or people in his organisation knew but thought best not to say anything to him. If that’s so then far from being hip, Facebook is dangerously and fragilely corporate. And I can’t believe Facebook did no research.

And then Marc Andreessen lumbers on to the scene to lecture the Indians on their ingratitude, sneering that ‘Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?’ Just hilarious.

In fact, India’s problem since 1947 has been the opposite. The truth is that its (Oxford-educated and socialist) elite slipped comfortably into the colonial bungalows and privileges that the British had just vacated, and decided that it suited them just fine and that they would never give it up and share anything with India’s ‘great unwashed’. I am thinking of course of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and all their babu civil servants and courtiers and journalist hangers-on. For the next nearly seven decades they ruled India in just as colonialist a manner as had the British; worse, in fact, looting the country and holding it back socially and economically to preserve their position and wealth.

At last India is starting to change and become for the first time truly ‘anti-colonialist’, or rather just self-possessed. That’s why they kicked out the Gandhis’ Congress Party in 2014 and elected Modi. Now India feels like doing things itself and is comfortable in rejecting the ‘charity’ foisted on it by supposedly well-intentioned foreigners.

In the process Facebook and Andreessen get biffed on the nose.

Vivek Wadhwa, who knows these people, says Andreessen ‘was just being his aloof and playfully combative self’ when he mis-spoke (how charming!) and that ‘I know from speaking to the Facebook team and exchanging emails with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg that Facebook’s intentions were good. It wasn’t trying to exploit the poor or gain an unfair competitive advantage.’ Or it could be that the clue is in the detail of the denial.

We should not be surprised that computer nerds in California have no idea about what’s going on in the world outside. I am reminded of somebody saying that ‘The best brains of my generation have been wasted in thinking up ways to get people to click on an advert.’ The nerds are all about money, as Bob Lefsetz repeatedly says, so we shouldn’t be surprised if they display a tin ear for culture and history.

And then it was Monsanto. After politely telling Facebook to get lost, it turns out that India has handed the American GMO its hat and coat, with Monsanto’s parting threats replied to with a smile and a nod towards the door.

Following years of alleged price-gouging on its Bt cotton stock, the Indian government in the person of the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food Processing, Sanjeev Balyan, stood up to the company and refused to meet its extortionate ‘royalty’ payments for the bollworm-resistant seeds. In fact, Balyan instructed that the firm’s fee would be cut by 70%. You don’t announce something as drastic as that and expect a meek agreement to be forthcoming. So when Monsanto replied that they would be forced to go elsewhere with their wares, the dismissive departmental flick of the fingers proved India had planned this confrontation very carefully.

The situation is that its own scientists now believe that they can do better than Monsanto, and cheaper too, without the environmental costs. Oh yes, there is a great potential downside to the genetic engineering Monsanto does, as evidenced by the wording of their user end-licence (the 2015 Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement), which limits the company’s liability to the price paid for the seeds and no more.

M Prabhakara Rao, President of the National Seed Association of India, saw the potential withdrawal of the multinational agri-giant as a great step forward: ‘All these years, the company has restrained us from using technologies other than the one developed by it. It forced the seed firms to sign the licence agreements that barred them from using other technologies.’ It almost sounds as if the worst that could now happen would be for Monsanto to agree to Balyan’s terms!

Indian scientists are developing strategies for using different varieties and hybrids to combat diseases afflicting the cotton crop. Monsanto’s Bt cotton seed is mostly planted in areas unsuitable for it anyway. By planting more suitable varieties – lanky strains for dense growth and more quickly-ripening varieties to cheat the cycle of disease, for example – the yield might actually increase while being cheaper and less damaging to the environment than employing the GMO ‘hammer-to-crack-a-walnut’ tactics.

The point is that India is in the mood to try. Its growing self-confidence and increasingly independent cast of mind reflects systemic changes the country is now undergoing. India is taking responsibility for itself and believing in its own competence. It is becoming more business-like and less tolerant of exploitative attitudes. Good thing, too.

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