Article on BOT
BOT: Neoliberal Way of Corporate Plunder
P J James
During the quarter century of neocolonialism that followed World War II, on account of the confluence of several economic, political and ideological factors, imperialism allowed the direct intervention of the state in the development of entrepreneurial activity by both imperialist and comprador regimes leading to an increase in the role of public sector in the economy. The setting up of public sector undertakings that provided the essential infrastructures and social and economic overheads such as roads, railways, ports, airports, etc., and social services such as education, health, etc., and communications, energy, banking and so on for the smooth functioning of corporate capital were carried out under the Keynesian umbrella that ensured the accumulation of significant share of wealth in the state treasury through progressive taxation and deficit financing. In several countries, along with the growth of the so called welfare state, bourgeois governments increased their share in the economy by nationalization of certain branches of industry. By pursuing a system of progressive taxation the state also mobilized a significant share of national income to substantially increase public expenditure. According to a World Bank estimate, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, central government expenditures in the so called developing countries such as India rose from 15 percent in 1960 to almost 33 percent by mid-eighties which started declining steeply thereafter. In spite of this predominance of public sector under Keynesianism, the essence of production relations remained neocolonial as there were so many surreptitious way of channeling surplus value created by workers in to the pockets of MNCs and comprador bourgeoisie.
But this arrangement could not continue for long. Progressive taxation by the state for running infrastructural projects and public spending on social security and workers welfare had been a heavy drain on the surplus value and therefore a diminution of corporate plunder or the so called rate of capital accumulation. As a result, when the capital accumulation process on account of its own inherent contradictions confronted one of the severest crises in the seventies as manifested through stagflation, taking advantage of the setbacks suffered by the Left, finance capital everywhere strived to bounce back with intensified vigour and reestablish its direct domination over erstwhile public enterprises through a process of denationalization, disinvestment and privatization together with a roll back and downsizing of the state from infrastructure and social overheads. Consequently, all strategic and key sectors including infrastructures which were hitherto reserved for public sector in the name of national security and people’s welfare have been opened up for penetration by corporate capital. To speed up the process of downsizing of the state, taxation as a proportion of GDP has been substantially reduced in the guise of incentives and stimulus packages to speculative capital. For instance, in India, during the last five budgets alone, as revealed by budget documents, the Manmohan government had granted a tax exemption of almost 22 lakh crores to corporates whose accumulation of wealth in the neoliberal period primarily takes place in the sphere of speculation rather than production. An important aspect of this neoliberal strategy was that the infrastructure projects pertaining to roads, ports, airports, etc. and public utilities are to be entrusted to corporate capital as BOT (build, operate, transfer) schemes with the imposition of appropriate user charges on the people.
Today the BOT projects have become one of the most lucrative sources of corporate plunder by speculative finance capital at a global level. Along with the complex set of financial devices that have been developed in the sphere of stock and money markets for surplus value extraction and thereby ballooning the financial sphere, finance capital being divorced itself from production has identified the BOT schemes as an ingenious form of corporate plunder. The blueprint for this that fully favours corporate monopolies is already laid down by World Bank in its guideline for infrastructural development. As such, every infrastructural project, whether it is port, road, or bridge should henceforth be on a public-private-partnership basis, the cost of which should be recovered by the operating party from the people through the imposition of user fees or toll collection. The government’s partnership involves the required land acquisition and the provision of a certain percent of the estimated cost as grant (at present, in the case of road construction this grant component comes to 40 percent of the estimated cost) addition to the provision of infrastructural facilities required for the construction of the project. The remaining part of the cost should be born by the corporate monopoly for which even public sector banks and development financial institutions are already placed in the queue with immense funds on the basis of mere goodwill. After completion of the project, the private party is free to own and operate the project for so many years or decades collecting toll or user fees from the public. As neoliberalism demands, the role of the government here apart from the initial grant and provision of amenities will be that of a mere ‘facilitator’ of this arrangement by providing the required facilities for building and necessary police functions for the smooth operation of the project to the satisfaction of the private party.
But this is only apparent. As the BOT schemes everywhere have become an inexhaustible source of corporate wealth accumulation, the corporate billionaires have themselves transformed into a BOT lobby in respect of every infrastructural sphere. Corporate mafia, ruling class politicians and bureaucrats have become the three poles of this unholy lobby. Today right from the preparation of the project report of a scheme itself, the BOT lobby manipulates everything. As a result, the cost of the project itself will be inflated several times than its real cost and there will be an oligopolistic collusion to keep out the lowest bidders at the outset. And the public contribution or government grant for the project will also be on the basis of this inflated cost. Often, this government grant, say 40 percent, may itself be sufficient to build the project. In that case, the remaining 60 percent of the money (that too from various public sources) mobilized in the name of the project can be diverted to other speculative spheres. Since the toll collection as per the original and periodically renewed basis continue indefinitely by the corporate-politician-bureaucrat nexus with the firm backing of all the judiciary, executive and legislature wings of the anti-people state, as already said, the BOT projects have become a fabulous source of corporate plunder during these days. The fact of the matter is that even with the existing resource mobilization efforts and without imposing user charges or toll collection the government itself can complete most of the infrastructure projects including roads, as was the case during the erstwhile Keynesian period. Therefore, the BOT projects are to be understood as part of the more vigorous and intensified plunder by speculative finance capital under neoliberalism.
There is another gruesome aspect also. The long term speculative interests of the BOT lobby also lies in relation to the land that can be acquired in excess of the requirements of the concerned project. The BOT lobby who themselves are also notorious “land developers” and real estate mafia are equally interested in grabbing the land surrounding and adjacent places by forcibly displacing the marginalized sections like street vendors, petty traders and even retail merchants and all other oppressed sections from their habitat. For example, the usual trend that can be seen when express high ways are constructed by demolishing the existing roads is the devastation of vast number of retail traders adjacent to old roads on the one hand, and the emergence of malls and supermarkets owned by corporate MNCs who are the BOT companies themselves. Therefore, there is strong correlation between the insistence on the part of comprador states for FDI in retail trade along with the implementation of BOT roads. Along with this, public transport system also will be systematically demolished, compelling even people at the lower income levels to resort to private vehicles for transportation. This is definitely intended to gallop the amount that is looted by the BOT lobby through toll collection. To be precise, the BOT scheme which is at present eulogized by both the central and state governments in India is not an isolated project but is inseparably linked up with the whole process of neo-liberalization unleashed by corporate capital using its executive board, the comprador Indian state. Those who are with the people can never tolerate it even for a moment.
The anti-BOT struggle led by CPI (ML) in Kerala should be evaluated in this perspective. Irrespective of their public postures, even the CPI (M) leadership in Kerala, in spite of the opportunist positions it local leaders take, are proponents of BOT as the only alternative for road development. It is in this context that the UDF led by OOmmen Chandy, the running dog of corporate mafia and BOT lobby is trying to impose the BOT scheme on the Keralites in the most heinous way with the connivance of all apologists of corporate capital. Over the past several decades, both the UDF and LDF who have been successively ruling Kerala has done nothing in the direction of strengthening a public transport system in the state which is most suitable for its habitat and topography. Most deplorable is the total neglect of an electrified double railway line in North-South direction with adequate number of trains at frequent intervals. Instead of it they were colluding with the strengthening private bus lobby and corporate road construction mafia by systematically destroying the public transport system in Kerala. Today the whole transportation problem including roads in Kerala can be settled only as part of a people oriented, democratic transportation policy which is possible only by resisting corporate capital and the whole neoliberal agenda. When the anti-BOT led by CPI (ML) struggle is gathering momentum and people on a large scale are coming forward and leading it, OOmmen Chandy, true to his class character is pursuing a carrot and stick policy of unleashing police atrocities on CPI (ML) cadres on the hand, and utilizing the services of time-tested NGO leaders to hijack the struggle and divert people to ‘attractive rehabilitation packages’. But the chief minister has not yet succeeded in this tactic and in the face of strong people’s resistance the toll collection is still pending. What requires is an urgent political initiative to arouse consciousness of the broad sections of the people by exposing the true essence of the BOT scheme and enable them to more clearly identify the perpetrators of the neocolonial, neoliberal regime, which is indispensable for ensuring people’s incessant fighting unity to move towards higher levels of struggles.