Commodifying Air

In 1999, when the public water supply system of Cochabamba, a city in Bolivia, was privatized, Bechtel, the California based company that was awarded the contract, proceeded to triple the price of water. All of a sudden, an essential human need had been converted into a luxury commodity available only to those who could afford it. More interested in profit margins than social justice, Bechtel cared little for the hundreds of thousands who were suddenly denied the ability to quench their thirst. While the subsequent rioting and protests in the city forced Bechtel to withdraw in the face of an incredibly strong peoples’ movement, the incident was a grim reminder of the extremes to which the dictates of capitalist development can take us.

The privatisation of water in Cochabamba was part of a policy recommendation provided to the Bolivian government by International Financial Institutions, such as the IMF, as part of a ‘Structural Adjustment Programme’. Essentially, the logic of these recommendations suggests that cutting down on the role of the state in the economy, and allowing for freer markets, will necessarily trigger growth and efficiency. Whether or not this actually works in practice is another debate altogether. What must be recognised, however, is the fact that when corporations are given greater leeway to extend the sphere of their operations, nothing remains sacred. The same profit motive that provides the impetus for making capitalism such an engine of growth also ensures that such growth takes place regardless of the ‘external’ costs that may be incurred.

Unfortunately enough, Pakistan is following a path to economic development not to dissimilar to the one trod by Bolivia and while there have been no attempts to privatise water, for example, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that increasingly, due to the imperatives of capitalist development, the commodification of essential needs is something that will inevitably take place. Bottled water, for example, represents a trend whereby access to clean drinking water, rather than being something that necessarily becomes the responsibility of the state to provide, is instead restricted to a small elite than can afford it.

Specifically, in the context of Lahore, the opening of an ‘Oxygen Bar’ in Y-Block, Defence, is yet another example of the lengths the capitalist entrepreneurial spirit will go to in its attempts to make more money. Catering to a clientele comprised mainly of the obscenely wealthy, and advertised at all the right stores and through all the right radio stations, it represents an expansion in the luxury consumption of the ultra-rich. Indeed, when one lives in an economic system inherently biased towards catering to the wants of the privileged, one can hardly expect private capital to attempt to address the needs of the marginalised majority.

That such a development is inevitable does not, however, make it any less troublesome. Forget legislation curbing pollution. Like water in Cochabamba, clean air in Lahore has clearly been marked as something available only to those who happen to be able to drive BMWs and go to good schools. With society being increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots, how long will it be before the majority realise that they’re getting the short end of the stick? What will it take to make our decadent, obsolescent upper class realise that the system, as it is currently constituted, must inevitably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions unless radical structural change is undertaken?

Who cares? As long as we have our McDonalds and our designer jeans, it’s all good, right?

2 Comments so far

  1. nausheen (unregistered) on August 14th, 2005 @ 2:01 am

    heh, i like the fact that you made this post right around the 14th :p

  2. Jangli Jagga (unregistered) on August 14th, 2005 @ 2:22 am

    right! to the core, I dare say.

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