Buy Local

Durga Pujo has ended. Like most other years, I spent it in my clan-homestead in the village of Patuligram, in the Hooghly district of Bengal, where my extended clan has been organizing the worship of the Holy Mother for the last 3 centuries or so. We call our native zone of Gangetic Bengal, our country or desh. In that desh, Bengal is my desher bari or country home. One can live within the Indian Union and can have a country that is not the tricolour India. Tricolour India is merely a certain take on this landmass, a hegemonic take at best, but nonetheless one take among many other popular. It is one of the tragedies of ‘brown’ people that they are increasingly losing the multiple countries each one of them have for only one country, that too for the most impoverished and limiting and violent concept of country in the form of a single rashtra. In my long sojourn in the USA, I had missed my ancestral Durga Pujo every year and not being in my country of Bengal during Durga Pujo is painful for me, as it is for millions of others.

A few miles away from my ancestral clan-homestead is a complex of boat making factories. These are among Bengal’s oldest surviving indigenous boat making factories. Except for the import of the wood as huge logs, every other stage of the manufacturing process is done here, using the highly skilled workforce of the area. Earlier, the Rajbongshi community used to have a near-monopoly in the boat-manufacturing industry here, but for some decades, there have been many apprentices from the Mohameddan community who are now skilled boat-makers here in their own right. The profit mostly stays and gets spent in the area. The relationship of this business with the area is like that of crop-remnant with the land on which the crop grows. The crop-remnant is mixed with the soil and that increases the fertility of the soil for the next cycle. The area is not simply a publicly subsidized “host” to the business with the cheapest labour brought in from elsewhere and the profit shipped out of the area. Not all businesses have an organic relationship with the land and community within which they exist. Some businesses are parasites.

While still in Patuligram, I saw large flexboard advertisements of a ghee called Unnati. The ghee factory is in Balagarh, a few miles away. Predictably, it has a solid customer-base locally and much of the employment it generates is also local. So, most of the wages also find their way into the local economy. Promotion of such local businesses is something that “green” consumers or ethical consumers do in the USA. They call it ‘Buy Local’ and list out its benefits. In the completely Walmartized Euro-American world, almost nothing is “local” and the unnatural assemblage of 500 items from all across the world, from Ghana chocolate to Italian olives, is considered a near birth-right in an advanced consumer society like that of the USA. The naturalization of this birth-right has at its heart an ideology of pure profit, where people don’t matter except as consumers. The profits and wages get siphoned to Wall Street or Dalal Street, depending on which part of the world we are talking about.

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While we collectively stare at a dismal ecological future in a long-range sense and increasing centralization of power and money in certain urban centres (like NCR in the Indian Union), buying local is an idea whose time has come. Buying stuff that is made locally (and local can mean many things of various spatial scales) has a lower carbon-footprint (due to less transport distance), creates a more economically prosperous society around the consumer and gives tax revenues to the government of that zone, which in turn channelizes that into services that helps the consumer. It really is a win-win formula. Not everything we buy is made locally and that is probably impossible. But many things we buy do have brands/variants made locally. Why should we not reserve our purchasing power for businesses who have roots in the local community? Why should someone in Tamil Nadu not preferentially buy things that are manufactured in Tamil Nadu and hence more likely to provide jobs to people of Tamil Nadu? Why should a Maharashtrian not preferentially buy things from businesses whose registered office is in Maharashtra and hence the entity pays certain taxes to the Maharashtra state government? This model of buying local is premised not only on democratization and ethics but also is self-serving – a perfect win-win scenario. In Nagaland and Manipur, I have seen store after store stuffed only with products that were also manufactured outside of those territories – advertised mostly by Hindi catchphrases using fair Hindustani models. Except for the small money that the trader makes, much of the manufacturing and supply chain processes don’t benefit Manipur and Nagaland. The consumers of Nagaland and Manipur pay outside agencies, the money that they could have kept in internal circulation if there was local production and a drive towards local consumption. The boycott of British-made goods during pre-Partition times was a response to the subcontinent being reduced to a raw-material exporter and finished good consumer. The value addition happened elsewhere and the profits went elsewhere. Similarly, in case of Nagaland and Manipur, the profits go to Mumbai and Delhi. Delhi privately makes more from Nagaland than it publicly gives to Nagaland. Given the legal set-up of the Indian Union, we are prohibited from calling this a “colonial” relationship. Because in a world controlled and driven by tricolour steroids, innocent NCR ‘browns’ can’t have colonies, only evil London whites can. And under the cover of such unholy cows, the Government of India wants to change its constitution to pass the General Goods and Services tax which is designed to take away control of local economy, especially taxation powers, from local communities. Its a conspiracy against the people in the service of interests whose think-tanks and pimps hover around Delhi all the time.

Buying local is not about economic benefit alone. It’s also about empowering communities in a real sense, beyond slick and shameless NGO-partnered “CSR” initiatives about street-children and “women”. Its about changing the paradigm of economic activity and getting the stake of the people back and putting one’s own surrounding first. That kind of support through consumption actually gives something tangible back as opposed to “feelings”of national pride where a private team of 11 players “win” something for the private gain of sponsors and bookies in one corrupt and sleazy tournament after another. It’s also important to think about how our choices are created by a faceless, rootless PR industry that homogenizes markets by using Hindi hashtags and fair (if not outright Caucasian) models to sell whatever they make. This is especially important when it comes to products that are deemed to be of high value. It is not accidental that most brands associated with high-value luxury products in Kolkata are not made by companies of Kolkata or Bengal but those of Delhi or USA or Europe. The place of production also brings in ideologies of cultural superiority where the “local” will always lose out to how the hierarchy of aesthetics is constructed in the “globalized” world. One’s ‘politics of aesthetics’ (that the global markets call “choice) is contained in one’s idea of luxury, what is nice, what one shells out for something (the socially determined value as opposed to value of raw materials only), where, for what and with whom one bargains and when they don’t.

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Garga Chatterjee Written by:

Brain scientist. Columnist. Bengali. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

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