Globalisation and consumerism are the two elements that define our present economic era. Intricately entwined, and complementing each other they have come to occupy a dominant position in this political economy. This hegemony of the prevailing economic order can best be appreciated through the lens of governmentality, a theoretical and methodological approach put forward by the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, towards understanding the governance and government of individuals in a modern liberal polity (Foucault, 2009). Put simply, governmentality refers to well-conceived, rational and calculated ways of regulating and managing the behaviour of individuals towards specific goals or ends (Inda, 2005). Over a period of time, academicians have gone about in different ways of understanding the nuances of governmentality and its material implications. Legitimation of approaches to governance has become one such way of understanding the material manifestations of governmentality (Rose & Miller, 1992). C.K Prahlad’s book, “Fortune At The Bottom of The Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits”, is a classic example of ratification, extolling governance geared towards the eradication of poverty by Multi-National Corporations.1

Eradication of poverty through profits, however oxymoronic it may seem, is a primary arena of focus in the book. In the book, Prahlad urges MNCs to actively engage with the market at the bottom of the pyramid through new and innovative approaches. Creating market infrastructures through avant-garde and ingenious approaches, and integrating the population at the base of the pyramid into a global market economy becomes the primary source of moral legitimation over here. The book thus can be conceived as a fine filament of well-embedded intellectual machinery that renders reality thinkable in such a manner as to make it computable and mouldable by experts from international, national, and local business organisations. Now, one might wonder about the reality the author is alluding to, and how he is perceiving this reality. 

It would not be an over-exaggeration to qualify the book as a composition centred around the approximation of a utopia. A utopia of corporate hijacking of the economies situated at the bottom of the pyramid, thus implicitly insinuating the discontinuation of a welfare mode of governance, and explicitly to an overhaul by a neoliberal one. The anti-poverty program targeted toward the demographic population at the bottom of the economic hierarchy becomes a mere tool of legitimisation in this case. The market in this book has been conceived of as a milieu formed through a well-rooted mesh of stakeholders positioned at various levels. For the formation of such an atmosphere, Prahlad has essentially insisted MNCs to take into account local practices and circumstances in their business models. Involving NGOs and existing local business entrepreneurs within such models has been suggested as one such means of creating a well-rooted market. A symbiotic relationship between these stakeholders can help in tapping into the space around those at the bottom of the pyramid and thereby culling out a viable and profitable market. The only role the national and local governments are supposed to play in this process is accrediting the necessary structural reforms which are supposed to aid the private bodies in indulging in a more proactive role in the making of the markets for those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP). Over here, an important observation which should be made is, though Prahlad invigorates a model of corporatisation for the development of a market ecology swarming with private players positioned at various scales, the very nature of such a milieu does not align with a trickle-down philosophy. It rather ricochets with the capability approach of Sen, which empowers the people at the base with the freedom to choose (Sen, 2001). As the author notes, the development of markets and effective business models at the BOP can transform and can make the task of poverty alleviation much easier, thus transcending from the prevalent approach around subsidies and aids to one fostering entrepreneurship and generation of wealth. At this juncture, it becomes important to throw another question, how does the author envisage those at the BOP in this book?

The poor at the bottom of the pyramid are treated as consumers, who are supposed to reap the benefits of respect, choice, and self-esteem, thus climbing out of the poverty trap. The author believes that this trajectory can only be laid out by the corporate enterprises, and firmly posits that it can only materialise if contingent circumstances at the base are taken into account by the same. Thus the four to five billion people the author is referring to become mere means for the fabrication of suitable infrastructures for the MNCs,  apparently with an aspiration of eradicating poverty and reaping profits. In this case, it is important to note that, Baue Williams in reviewing the same book very rightly noted that, though the author sets an ambitious pathway to turn the hitherto ignored individuals at the bottom of the pyramid into the largest beneficiaries of globalisation through consumerism, he ignores the probable environmental externalities caused by the same MNCs, whom the author poses as the knights in shining armours to the BOP. One such example is the waste generated through the packaging products circulated in the market by the same MNCs, legitimised in the name of serving those placed at the bottom. 

 In the second chapter of the book, one can see the author touting about the huge market share enjoyed by the products which come in unit packages, also known as sachets. The very fact that poor people have an unpredictable stream of income, and their subsistence on daily wages becomes the primary means of ratifying their circulation. Indeed, the author, while referring to the purchasing practices very rightly notes, 

“Many subsist on daily wages, and have to use cash conservatively. They tend to make many purchases only when they have cash and buy only what they need for the day. Single serve-packaging be it shampoo, ketchup, tea and coffee or aspirin is well suited to this populations”. 

But generation of enormous waste through these single-unit packaging materials has not received much of his attention. According to one of the Brand Audit reports in the year 2019, coordinated by a civil society organisation Break Free from Plastics, sachets comprise around 38% of the single-use plastics collected through clean-ups at various sites across the world. What’s more pressing in this case is, sachets whose recyclability in practice is nonviable, form the largest share of environmental waste, ending up choking the drains which are ensued by the breeding of mosquitoes and the localisation of floods. A column in the Times of India noted that 90% of Delhi’s plastic waste is not recycled. From the 690 tonnes of plastic waste generated every day, sachets falling under the category of single-use plastics formed the largest share of it. 

The low recyclability value of the sachets forms a part of the major problem. Typically, sachets are often materials made of three layers, comprising at least one layer of plastic, and supplemented by one or more layers which can be of materials like paper, aluminium foil, polymeric materials, or metallised layers. This layered nature of sachets creates great difficulties in sorting them in the first place by the waste pickers, thus hindering the recycling of sachets as a cost-effective solution. Burning of these sachets thus becomes the only option for doing away with them. Discarding the sachets, in this manner results in the release of harmful chemicals leading to serious public health hazards. Another alternative to the disposal of sachets, which is also peddled as recycling, or “energy recovery” has been the burning of plastic in waste to energy incinerators. This has warranted the penetration of single-use plastic into the market at an increasing rate. The incineration of plastic waste thus reflects the myopic vision of government policies in dealing with waste and pollution generated through plastics. In India, policies around large-scale infrastructure like waste-to-energy plants have led to more alarms in their wake. The plastic sector happens to be one of the important stakeholders, among those propounding the waste-to-energy infrastructure. Important to mention here is that those at the BOP are significantly exposed to the toxic implications of such disposal mechanisms; be it in the case of open burning of sachets, or using sachets as the primary feedstock for waste-to-energy incinerators. Landfills and hazardous waste sites are more likely to be located in minority and low-income regions

In the third chapter of the book, the author prioritises reduction in the intensity of resource use, due to a dearth of waste management infrastructures in India. But he has not emphasised much on it. Elimination, reduction and recycling of sachets and other problematic plastic packages, which should be amongst the most acute agenda of the present times have received an infinitesimally small space in the book and, quite evidently also in the agenda of the FMCG companies. On a similar note, the author’s emphasis on Transaction Governance Capacity (TGC) where transparency occupies an important element seems to be a futile sermon as it assumes a total opacity in the everyday endeavours of the corporations. The continuous shirking off of the responsible management of problematic plastic wastes promoted by the private enterprises like Nestle, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and several other FMCGs, despite their promising pledges to tackle climate change, proves to be a good example in this case.

The book, “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits”, also has a Hindi translation in the name of, “Garibi Hatao, Munafa Kamao”. Incidentally, the first two words of the Hindi title ricochet with the Garibi Hatao, anti-poverty slogan that Indira Gandhi had used during her 1971 election campaign. Though they share the same nomenclature, the orientation of these entities is diametrically opposed to one another. While one was rooted in programs oriented toward the eradication of poverty through state-sponsored welfare programs, the other promotes the same through massive corporatisation and private profits. But the latter runs the risk of further aggravating the plight of those whose problems they were meant to address in the first place. Given the prevalent state of affairs of growth and development defined through, and hinged around the privatisation of institutions, such fearful prospects have indeed attained a monotonous buzz in everyday life. But the havoc which they wreak for those at the receiving end is much more tumultuous than a mere buzz. The case of sachets, for instance, promulgated by the FMCGs as materials enhancing the capacity of the poor to choose and use, has done more harm than good. For the sake of increasing their share of profits, in the name of eradicating poverty, private enterprises have forcefully injected consumerism into spaces alongside exposing them to their toxic reverberations. The equally complicit state and its institutions should also be held accountable for this. Validating and holding a merely frivolous approach in keeping a watch on an unbridled mode of corporatisation, the state has a fair share of blame to account for. The way in which the Plastic Waste Management Rules have evolved in India bears witness to this fact. Such assemblages have not only exposed the BOP to a desolate locus but also stripped them of options to choose a more sustainable form of living. In the end, it’s definitely a fortune, but one at the expense of those at the bottom of the pyramid!

References

  • Foucault, M. (2009). Governmentality. In A. Sharma, & A. Gupta, The Anthropology of the State a reader (pp. 131-143). Blackwell Publishing.
  • Inda, J. X. (2005). Analytics of the Modern: An Introduction. In J. X. Inda, Anthropologies of Modernity: Foucault, Governmentality and Life Politics (p. 15). Blackwell Publishing.
  • Rose, N., & Miller, P. (1992). Political Power Beyond State: Problematics of Government. The British Journal of Sociology, 173-205.
  • Sen, A. (2001). Development As Freedom. Oxford Paperbacks.
Footnotes
  • 1An important facet of governmentality is, it places the onus of influencing the conduct of individuals not only on the state and its institutions, but other agencies and actors as well. Multinational Corporations are a few of those important actors specifically relevant in this case. 
  • 2Through the concept of Transaction Governance Capacity, the author emphasizes on the transparency factor, for the evolution of capital markets and a vibrant private sector. The authors believe that, Transparency results from widely understood and clearly enforced rules. Transactions involving these rules must be clear and unambiguous.

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