People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 35

August 29, 2010


The Sacred Cow


Prabhat Patnaik


THE early years of the Left Front government in West Bengal in the late seventies had been marked by severe power cuts in Calcutta (as it then was) and elsewhere in the state. One evening as “load shedding” began, a little urchin in a slum neighbouring a high-rise, jumped up and down clapping his hands, shouting: “Babuder alo gyalo re” (“the babus have lost their lights”)! The slum to which he belonged was devoid of power supply and hence not affected by the power cut, while the high-rise was; in his excitement that urchin was expressing an important truth: power supply, and hence by inference the concept of “infrastructure” itself, has a class dimension.


Any particular growth trajectory requires infrastructure specific to it. The advent of colonialism, for instance, which entailed a growth trajectory for the economy that was totally different from what had obtained earlier, meant the building of a whole new type of infrastructure, such as ports, railways, and urban metropolises around ports; and the decay of the infrastructure that had existed earlier. Gaur and Murshidabad declined as Calcutta came up, Thanjavur and Warangal became marginalised as Madras flourished, and Pune and Satara became minor cities as Bombay occupied the centre stage. The investment undertaken for this new infrastructure was part of the promotion of a new growth trajectory, and hence ipso facto in the interests of the classes that stood to benefit from this trajectory and against the interests of the classes that became its victims. The term “infrastructure” therefore cannot be seen as an undifferentiated catch-all category which is always “socially necessary” and investment in which is always “good for the people”.


But then isn’t it the case that since the shifting growth trajectories have the effect of  developing the social productive forces, the investment in the shifting infrastructure requirements for these changing growth trajectories is simply part of historical progress? Doesn’t looking at this historical progress merely in terms of being beneficial to some classes and against the interests of the others, amount to the adoption of a rather narrow and moralistic perspective, to the exclusion of an overarching view based on the development of social productive forces? Who for instance would deny that the introduction of railways in India, though motivated by the colonial regime’s need to open up Indian markets to foreign goods and to cart Indian raw materials off to the world market, nonetheless played a remarkably positive role in the development of the Indian economy and society. And given this role, isn’t it churlish to cavil at the particular class interests that brought the railways into existence in India? Isn’t looking at the development of infrastructure through the prism of class interests then an altogether unjustified occupation, especially for Marxists who take a “longer view” and measure social progress in terms of the development of the social productive forces?




Karl Marx interestingly had made a most remarkable statement. Talking about India he had written in a letter to Danielson in 1881: “What the English take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus; pensions for military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars etc. etc.- what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India…amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India!” (Emphasis added). The same Karl Marx who had written elsewhere that the “railway system will ..become in India.. the forerunner of modern industry” had no compunctions about calling the railways “useless to the Hindus”. The development of the productive forces in his perception in other words, could never be looked at in isolation from the class character of this development.


The matter acquires a special pertinence when we are looking at the development of the productive forces not just in the context of history, but in the midst of a struggle over the mode of development of productive forces, i.e. when this development is itself a matter of class struggle, as is the case now. Bourgeois spokesmen would argue that something called “infrastructure”, as a supra-class, supra-growth-trajectory entity, is essential for society, and that investment in it must be encouraged at all costs. The expenditure of Rs 35,000 crores on developing the “infrastructure” in Delhi to cope with the Commonwealth Games is socially necessary, and that there should be a political consensus on such investment in general. Their attempt is precisely to deny that infrastructure has a class character as well. The development of expressways has a rationale only in a society where the car population is increasing rapidly; it benefits only the car-owning population, and no matter what its long-run benefits for society as a whole, it is “useless” (in Marx’s sense) for the bulk of the people of the country.


“Infrastructure” as a catch-all category, being made into a sacred cow which must be worshipped by all irrespective of political differences and class perspectives, is therefore a bourgeois subterfuge to pass off the interests of the beneficiaries of the current neo-liberal growth trajectory as the “social interest”. True, the development of infrastructure even in this sense may stand society in good stead at some indefinite future date even after the current growth trajectory may have passed. But that cannot be an argument for supporting expenditure on “infrastructure” indiscriminately, for that would mean an abdication of the espousal of the class interests of the oppressed, and an endorsement of the prevailing growth trajectory itself.


Once we see “infrastructure” as having a class dimension, we must distinguish “infrastructure” that is in the interests of the people at large and “infrastructure” that uses social resources for the benefit of the few. While economists have been surprisingly chary of drawing this distinction, artists, at least some of them, have been more forthright. The late Habib Tanvir in a play called “sadak” had lampooned the obsession with expressways, “useless” to the people but of benefit only to the rich or to the State, (reminiscent of the Nazi autobahns), that the country had acquired.


To be sure, as long as the specific growth trajectory continues, not developing infrastructure appropriate for it, would cause contradictions, bottlenecks and inconvenience. On the other hand, distinguishing between different kinds of infrastructure, ensuring that expenditure on infrastructure “useless” to the people is curbed, even if  it causes inconvenience to the beneficiaries of the current growth trajectory, and using the resources for meeting instead the health and education needs of the people at large, for universalising the public distribution system and other such ends (for all of which the government pleads scarcity of resources), is not only socially desirable in itself, but may even become the first step in an overall attempt to change the growth trajectory itself. To treat as a sacred cow something that is an integral part of a specific growth trajectory is an endorsement, whether consciously or unconsciously, of this trajectory itself. Rejecting this sacred cow can be the start of a struggle against this trajectory itself.




This point is different from, and in addition to, the one usually made about infrastructure investment being an occasion for private profiteering. The SEZs are usually a means of acquisition of land by “developers” which they then put to commercial use to amass wealth for themselves. Indeed the very announcement of an infrastructural project in a particular region pushes up land values, so that those “developing” the infrastructure are in a position to earn fabulous capital gains within a very short period from the land they acquire supposedly for the infrastructure project. Likewise, the PPP mode adopted in many infrastructure projects has been rightly called public subsidisation of private profit.


All these however concern the terms on which infrastructure projects must be built, the terms of land acquisition and the magnitude of it, the amount and mode of compensation for those who lose their livelihoods on account of the coming up of the infrastructure project, and so on. These are of course very important issues; but in addition to all these there is the even bigger issue of the rationale of the infrastructure projects themselves; and that is our present concern. Even if an infrastructure project entails no displacement of peasants, even if the land acquired is exactly what is needed for the project, leaving no scope for capital gains from the land, or other forms of commercial exploitation of it, even if its financing contains no element of illegitimate siphoning of public funds for private profits, even then the question still remains: should this infrastructure project be built? The interests of which class does it serve?

This question, which is the one being raised here, arises, as mentioned earlier, for the following simple reason. If the class nature of the growth trajectory is recognised, then the class nature of the infrastructure that serves the particular growth trajectory must also be recognised, and an appropriate class position must be taken with regard to all such infrastructure projects instead of simply treating such projects as a sacred cow. Class struggle in other words must not only encompass struggle over the growth trajectory, but also, correspondingly, struggle over infrastructure as well.


The little urchin who had clapped at “load-shedding” could implicitly draw a distinction that Karl Marx had done explicitly. It is essential that we too draw this distinction today.