By Anoop Jain:
I have been working in India since 2010. During that time, I have borne witness to the wretched conditions that so many Indian women, men, and children continue to endure. Hundreds of millions lack access to toilets and safe drinking water. These violations of basic human rights – inadequate sanitation and water – manifest as preventable morbidity and premature mortality, which in turn lead to economic and social marginalization.
Constellations of violations and depravities do not arise spontaneously; these injustices are always constructed. What makes this fact especially pernicious is that in many instances, the architects are the very people who purportedly espouse the end of extreme poverty. They claim to be dedicating their lives to ensuring access to basic services that promote good health, safety, and well-being.
One of those architects is Chris Martin, the frontman of Coldplay. Martin works closely with the Global Poverty Project, an organization that seeks to end extreme global poverty by 2030. He was in India last summer with Global Poverty Project’s leadership team when they all met and thanked Prime Minister Modi for launching the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign and for his commitment to ending extreme poverty in India.
Martin’s involvement in this effort is problematic for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of which is that celebrity involvement in these kinds of efforts is typically specious.
A deeper dive into Martin’s involvement reveals something far more troubling. Martin does not actually understand India, its problems, and the awful consequences of his superficial efforts. This was confirmed to me when I watched the music video for Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’. The band felt that the narrative of the song needed to be visually represented by misappropriating and falsely depicting everyday life in India. Again, I think it would be easy to only expand on this point, but so many others have examined the ways in which that music video is not only wrong, but also harmful since it was released over a week ago.
My interest lies in demonstrating that Martin’s misunderstanding makes him a culprit in holding millions of Indians captive. In thanking Modi for launching Swachh Bharat, Martin is perpetuating the idea that Swachh Bharat is good for the country, and thus that it is a policy that should continue existing as it is. His support for Modi further legitimizes the Prime Minister, when in fact he should be excoriated. Swachh Bharat has been designed to disregard the needs of India’s poorest. The offer of a cash reimbursement from Swachh Bharat to a family after they have constructed a toilet is useless for those who cannot afford the upfront cost of toilet construction. Millions of Indian families are thus excluded from participating in Swachh Bharat while they desperately try improving their living conditions.
Yet Martin’s greatest folly does not lie in supporting bad policy. The world’s leading scientists, academics, and decision makers are often caught throwing their weight behind misguided policies that ostensibly benefit the poor. By supporting Modi, Martin’s greatest transgression is his unawareness the extent to which he is undermining India’s democracy. The north Indian state of Haryana recently enacted a law that forbids people who do not own a toilet from running for political office, even at the most local levels. Three other Indian states have enacted the same law. It should not come as any surprise that three of these four states are controlled by Modi’ BJP party.
Setting toilet ownership as a precondition to democratic participation typifies how unjust nudging people into certain behaviours can be. This law in particular, ignores the harsh economic realities that millions of Indians endure. Worse, these laws punish people for their poverty, a condition that sprouts from, and sits tenuously on top of, our dehumanizing social, political, and economic systems. In this case, the law prevents the poor from representing themselves and systematically crushes dreams of self-determination. That is the very self-determination that galvanized India’s freedom movement so many years ago. India’s indigents are thus represented by those who know nothing about poverty and its crippling effects.
India, and Indians, should not accept Martin’s meddling. The indignation towards him must run deeper than an excoriation of Coldplay’s new music video. Because in aligning with Modi, he has become complicit in the subjugation of so many Indians. The pathology of the power resulting from this alliance manifests as extreme social disorganization that leaves hundreds of millions of Indians without toilets, safe drinking water, and other essential services. Martin is no different than his ancestors.