Happy Birthday BRICS! Economies Growing Fast, Political Weight Of A Newborn

Singh, Jinping, Zuma, Rousseff and Putin at the 5th BRICS Summit
Singh, Jinping, Zuma, Rousseff and Putin at the 5th BRICS Summit
Michel de Grandi

NEW DELHI - Dreaming with BRICs, the study published in 2003 by Goldman Sachs that traced the rise of four emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) also marked the birth of a concept that has yet to disappoint.

Between 2004 and 2011, average growth in China was 10.8%, in India 8.3% -- to mention but the top two. Today nobody would dare challenge the economic dynamism of the emerging markets or their appetite for performance. Not only do they contribute more and more to world growth (36%), but if all stays on track, by 2020 they should represent about a third of the global GDP. That’s a huge economic weight for a group that is so heterogeneous.

The only thing the BRICs have in common is the fact that they are very large countries – sometimes even huge. The size of the Chinese economy is at least 30% bigger than the economies of the other three put together (according to 2012 statistics). The levels of GDP per capita also differ widely: Russia and Brazil have average per capita incomes, but China and above all India still rank among poor nations. The size of their population varies even more widely.

Four countries became five, and the BRIC countries became BRICS, when the group integrated South Africa, a significantly smaller country, in 2010. The group of five now includes two permanent members of the UN Security Council, three nuclear powers – and two authoritarian regimes. That’s enough capital to move this purely economic set-up into a more political structure. Deep down, the group has one essential common denominator – the refusal of Western supremacy in the world. Over the years, the voices of emerging countries have grown louder in the international bodies, by going against the tide of globalization – even though it was this that helped them develop.

The BRICS defend the UN, but they want to democratize the organization, as well as gain more clout there. At the World Trade Organization (WTO) they have assumed the role of spokespeople for the poorest nations. By creating the G20 in 2003 they started saber-rattling by opposing the positions of the industrialized nations.

In 2009, the Copenhagen summit on climate change was blocked by the emerging countries, which managed to isolate the Europeans and their pro-environment measures. That same year, the first BRIC summit (there were still only four), organized by Russia, revealed during preparatory meetings to just what extent the group’s players wanted to turn it into an anti-Western war machine.

In the end the BRICs ostensibly demanded greater representation in international financial institutions and a more open selection process for the directors of these institutions. Without saying it outright, they made their dissatisfaction known about the fact that the presidencies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were reserved for the U.S. and Europe.

In 2011, at the Sanya summit in China, they called for far-reaching reforms to the UN and its Security Council. The recent Durban summit confirmed the path the BRICS are on: The five countries have decided to create a development bank as a counterweight to the World Bank. They also announced they wanted to mobilize part of their foreign exchange reserves to create their own fund and thus not have to depend on the IMF.

Political dwarfs

But make no mistake: While these countries have emerged from economic anonymity, they remain political dwarfs, their cohesion built around their own institutions or multilateral arenas. Their foundations remain fragile, and their anti-West rhetoric goes out the window as soon as their national interests are threatened.

Regarding Libya, for instance, the BRICS voted against the intervention, even though earlier South Africa had voted for it at the UN Security Council, where it is a non-permanent member.

The same sort of dissent was observed in regard to Syria: On the one hand, in 2012, Russia and China vetoed Western resolutions supported by the Arab League; on the other, India and South Africa – after discussions with Brazil – ended up supporting the resolutions or abstaining from voting.

The adoption of a pacifist principle is another point of contention. When Russia clamped down heavily on separatist groups, the other BRICS members found themselves in an awkward position to protest. Within the club, China’s attitude worries some of the other members because of its arrogance and its desire to dominate the debate – to the extent of swallowing the group up whole. At the last summit in Durban, a decision as to where the future development bank should be headquartered wasn’t taken up because of lack of consensus.

It is this huge fragility that is the main weakness of the BRICS. Today, the issue is not whether the five emerging countries will be able to influence world trade structures but rather if they will be able to continue to grow together on a political level.

There are two possibilities: either they get some real leadership and a political line, or they expand their community to include other emerging nations – at the risk of creating bigger governance problems.

That’s unless they prefer to return to the way things were before. In 2003, India, Brazil and South Africa had already joined together to create the IBSA Dialogue Forum, a tripartite group espousing multi-cultural, multi-ethnic – and democratic – values.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!