a bimonthly publication of
progressive south asian politics

Volume 7: Number 1                      October 2, 1996
In this Issue...
IMF, Capital and Us: The Economics of Imperialism by Radhika Lal
"Other" wise?: The Selling of Global Cultural Difference by Sangeeta Rao
The Structural Adjustment of Grassroots Politics by Sangeeta Kamat
Foil Briefs

Global Technoscapes and Unborn Voices: Gendering Globalization

Mir Ali Raza

I saw them bury a dead child
In a cardboard box
(This is true, and I don't forget it)
On the box there was a stamp.
"General Electric Company
Progress is our best product"
Louis Alfredo Arrago,
Guatemala, 1967.

Consider the following: In 1993, General Electric Company (GE) announced a number of key strategic initiatives to invest heavily in the developing third world markets of India, China, and Mexico. Hailed by the business media as an act of great entrepreneurial wisdom, this move was targeted toward ensuring that GE increased the international component of its total turnover to over 50% of its revenues (currently estimated at $60 billion per annum). One of the major industries targeted for expansion in India was that of diagnostic imaging equipment, a market valued at $16 million and estimated to be growing at 20% per annum (over twice the level of average industry growth in India). GE planned to introduce several innovative products into this market, one of them being a 20 lb ultrasound scanner, a device that could fit into the backseat of a car, allowing technology for abdominal imaging to be made available across the Indian hinterland. The ultrasound scanners have vast imaging possibilities but are primarily used to monitor the development of a fetus in a womb. Among other "benefits," this technique is known to have a powerful accuracy in predicting the sex of a fetus by the middle of the first trimester of pregnancy.

Contrast this with another Indian story: In August 1995, the Indian government, responding to intense alarm about dwindling sex ratios, banned fetal sex determination tests, recognizing their role in perpetrating selective female feticide. The ban, which finally took effect on the first of January, 1996, is meant to extend to all clinics which administer pre-natal sonographic tests to determine the sex of a fetus, but interestingly, does not extend to any control on the production and sale of diagnostic equipment. The government's move has been prompted by the revelation of some very sobering statistics: in the decade 1981-1991, the female-male ratio in India has dropped from 934 (females to a thousand males) in 1981 to 927 in 1991. In some states, the ratio is as low as 875. While the causes for this growing disparity in sex ratios are numerous, from non-uniform access to health and nutrition to plain infanticide, one of the significant factors that has emerged in the recent past has been that of selective feticide. Signs of this practice in India are evident enough to be blatant. Hoardings on street corners in small towns as well as big cities advertise clinics that offer "planned parenthood" and "guaranteed success" in sex determination tests. A single sex determination test costs Rs. 2000, a fee that has not deterred those who seek its usage. Single clinics in some cities like Jaipur have admitted to conducting as many as 60,000 sex determination tests every year.

Is there any relationship between the above two stories? On one hand, we have a corporation seeking to test its mettle in an inviting, if competitive market. On the other hand, we have sedimented and unenlightened practices reincarnating themselves in a modern avatar. What could be common between them? This is no open-and-shut example of direct exploitation of local interests by foreign capital, such as the case of the East India Company's cutting off the thumbs of Bengali weavers, or even the case of Union Carbide. That is precisely the sophistication of the "second entry" of transnational capital into the third world: this time, it comes with a far more sophisticated epistemological arsenal, where not only does it protest its innocence, it rides a promise of development and emancipation and an invitation into a global collectivity. Of course, the other side of the coin is a threat of inevitability, implying that those who are not inside the pale of its invitation are outsiders forever.

How are we to understand this inexplicable nexus between liberating global technology and entrenched patriarchal practices? On one hand, we have the dominant global/industrial enterprise as represented by GE. This is certainly not a totally foreign power, it has chosen to invest in India at the behest of the Indian government which actively sought and lobbied for GE's investment largesse. On the other hand, we have the specter of continued eugenics to perpetrate the very practices that science promised us liberation from. God forbid, are we to conclude that science and technology does not liberate, but merely obfuscates and renders indirect the links between capital and exploitation?

If the peasant insurgent was the victim and unsung hero of the first wave of territorial imperialism in India, it is well known that, for reasons of collusion between pre-existing structures of patriarchy and transnational capitalism, it is the urban, sub-proletarian female who is the paradigmatic subject of the current configuration. (Gayatri Spivak)

A multiplicity of voices characterize the debate on female feticide. Some, like those representing GE, regard the problem as being peripheral to their interests. They may even condemn the "misuse" of their technology in such a manner, but remain convinced of its overall emancipatory potential. For example, according to the CEO of Wipro-GE, Mr Vivek Paul, sex determination forms a "very very small percentage of their [ultrasound equipment's] usage". Likewise, the Indian government is proud of having attracted the foreign direct investment (FDI) from GE. This increase in foreign investment outlay (from $100m in 1991-92 to over $5000m in 1994-95) represents a major success for the government in the goals it has set itself. Interestingly, while the government would express the introduction of the scanning devices into the hinterland as a measure of success, it would also have no hesitation in admitting that the 927 ratio represents a major failure on its part. Indeed, it has attempted to institute a variety of developmental and legal measures to halt this growing disparity. However, while it continues its effort at legal and ameliorative levels, it actively opposes any attempts to make fundamental links between modernizing practices and feticide. An example of this was the way in which these issues were consciously avoided by the official Indian delegation to the Beijing conference in September 1995. As Margaret Alva said when questioned about it, " we are here to represent our country and talk about the progress we have made, not to identify only what is wrong with it".

Others, like the Maharashtra-based Forum against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-selection, are more cognizant of these linkages. To quote them, "Society has hitherto looked to gods and supernatural powers to realize its desire for male progeny; it has now turned to the practitioners of modern medicine". That is the irony of the current situation: the liberation that science and technology promised has not only been belied, but technology has actually helped turn entrenched patriarchy into a finer art. Not only are these tests precise, but they bring with them their own discourse of legitimacy, a legitimacy that is clearly evident in the Indian government's response to GE's FDI's.

By refusing to acknowledge the explicit links between technology, capitalism and patriarchy, the governmental efforts at curbing feticidal practices end up furthering them through the very laws it sets up to prevent them. Consider for example, the notion of a legal-judicial control of selective female feticide. This practice, if approached as a matter that requires legal control over the right to abort, has potential consequences for the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which offers a very important option to Indian women. Similarly, treating the issue as a mere law and order problem gives it the potential to be used against the very victims of this practice. For example, a similar ban on diagnostic techniques enacted in Maharashtra in 1988 fined the woman under question Rs 1000 and prescribed imprisonment up to 3 months. The husband or the in-laws were not held liable, and the concerned doctors and manufacturers were not even deemed as defendants in the litigatory process. The government also decreed that licenses needed to be granted to clinics for conducting sex-determination tests. The law was meant to safeguard from the illegal use of these tests, but ended up legitimizing those clinics who could bribe their way to a license. Just as the population control exercises in India in the 60s and 70s, in their ahistorical and decontextualized implementation, not only failed to meet the contraceptive needs of women, but also succeeded in diverting attention from other health and social issues,the practices aimed at eliminating selective female feticide not only end up ineffective, but may actually further the very patriarchal practices they set out to deny.

The issue of sex determination tests is but one of the manifestations of the impact of globalized technology on the reproductive practices of gendered Third World subject. Other notorious examples include the testing of the contraceptive Norplant in Brazil, the fact that in various urban centers of the Third World caesarian sections are becoming the preferred mode of childbirth (a study recently showed that 75% of the babies born in Sao Paulo were by Caesarian section!), the use of sophisticated technique such as IVF (In-Vitro Fertilization) and GIFT (Gamete- Intra-Fallopian-Tube), the attempts to market the controversial contraceptive RU 486 in Latin America, and various other techniques whereby childbirth and pregnancy are medicalized and technologized.

It is high time we recognize the manner in which reproduction -- both in its biological and its cultural manifestations, has found itself as the center of social theory. The GATT negotiations on seeds provide an allegorical grounding of this thesis. The debate on whether or not to declare seeds as patentable intellectual property is grounded in the understanding of how plant life reproduces itself. Just as local patriarchal processes sought to deny the regenerative power of the earth by conceptualizing it as inert and the seed as the source of all regeneration, international capital has sought to render both the earth and the seed inert, with the regenerative capabilities residing solely in the (Western) mind of the genetic engineer. Similarly, reproductive polices and politics increasingly depend on transnational inequalities. The active role of the woman in the reproductive process is now doubly denied, by the force of patriarchy as well as that of technology.

At the heart of the invasion of these global practices into the Third World is the project to control what is "natural". And the best way to propagate a specific political version of the modern is to reduce nature and geography to an infinite, uniform and homogeneous space, reduced to a single law of identical temporality. This law has the fashionable name of globalization.

Who then, is to articulate the position of those subjects whose bodies become the site of "the cutting edge" of this globalization? In their own way, the women of Southern Tamil Nadu "theorize" their plight as "a sieve of prickly bush". But such articulations scarcely find legitimacy in debates on technology that have moved further and further away from those subjects that are directly affected when these technologies backfire. Just as in the Narmada Dam debate those who are most strongly in favor of the nationalistic sacrifice of the adivasis are those who are materially distant from the site of the "sacrifice", similarly, those who argue that reproductive technologies are part of an emancipatory progress are far enough away from the site of their theory to blind themselves to its violence and brutality.

[Mir Ali Raza is a student of business at the University of Amherst and a member of FOIL]

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