Main struggle in India today is between pro-people laws and efforts by corporate sector, other vested interests to dilute them

ecology economyBy Gagan Sethi and Rajiv Shah

Review* of the book by Felix Padel, Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni, Ecology Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection (Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2013, pp 340, Rs795)

The book under review has gone a long way towards questioning the manner in which some of the key concepts such as development and under-development have been widely used, ever since the days of Herbert Spencer, Marx, Engels and others, right up to modern-day theorists from both the Left and the Right. Questioning the “uniform model” of set stages of development, from primitive communism to feudalism and capitalism used by these theorists, the authors point out that the rapid growth envisaged by these intellectuals has seen the culmination of a ‘New World Order’, leading to extreme forms of exploitation and inequality, and resulting in major issues related to environmental degradation and a steep rise in ‘ecological refugees’.

Arguing against the type of neoliberal capitalism that is being posited by these theorists, who presuppose that self-interest will lead to the greatest common good, the authors rightly argue that a holistic cost-benefit analysis suggests that huge costs are involved in the type of development that is being envisaged. Thus, foreign direct investments (FDIs) in India have meant buying up people’s land and resources; company profits have meant displacement of communities, flooding them out with money, and goonda violence; promises for local jobs have been replaced by farmers losing land; stimulating growth has meant environmental and water regime damage, pollution and GHG emission; and corporate social responsibility has meant loss of communities’ control over their labour and environment.

This type of haphazard development has taken place, the authors strongly argue, because the US and other countries have in the recent past outsourced metal production to developing countries, where environmental and social costs are not so visible or readily politicized. “The situation has indeed turned disastrous. India witnessed a vast expansion in steel and aluminium output with, until recently, relatively little overall awareness of damaging effects on water resources and communities”, the authors say, adding, “With the promotion of nuclear power plants and uranium mines, this lack of holistic thinking is even more evident.”

felix padel
Felix Padel

While there is little reason to doubt this reasoning, the authors appear to enter into a ticklish arena while asking a fundamental question: “What is development?”. And here, the authors seem to be taking a contentious view by suggesting that adivasis do not need any modern development (though they do not say so in so many words). In fact, it appears their view that the adivasis should remain in their primitive state, like before. And for this they quote an adivasi in Madhya Pradesh, who in a letter directed to the authorities responsible for displacing him says, “You take us to be poor. But we’re not… We produce many kinds of grains with our own efforts, and don’t need money.” They also quote an elder from a Konda tribal village asking Samarendra Das (in Felix Pedal’s co-authored book, Out of This Earth), “We are all saints in this village. We have minimum needs, share what we have, and waste nothing.”

However, the authors’ intention is well-meaning. By posing the question – what is development? – they reject the development paradigms of neoliberal theorists, zealously propagated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The authors believe, World Bank-IMF development paradigms have proved disastrous, especially “in their impacts on ecosystems and the overall well-being of the people”, hence they should be rejected.

To prove their point, the authors quote World Bank statistics. The Bank, according to them, itself has recognized that a vast majority of displaced tribal people experience a huge drop in their living standards as a result of what companies or development projects offer. “An estimated 40 to 60 million people, about half of whom are adivasis, have been displaced by industry and dams since India’s Independence”, the authors say, adding, “Displacement hits adivasis particularly hard because their social structure binds them to land. This comes on top of a system of endemic exploitation in tribal areas, which is intensified by corruption surrounding funds for tribal development.”

Ajay Dandekar

By way of example, the authors point towards what has happened to the minerals in the mountains of Central India’s tribal belt. These, they say, have “become objects of prime desire to the world’s mining companies and, behind them, to the banks and speculators who make fortune out of metals trading. For millions of displaced people, the projects that displaced them cannot be properly called development, as these people often state, with considerable vehemence. ‘Development-induced displacement’ is therefore a misnomer. A more fitting description would be ‘investment-induced displacement’ since financial investment is an undisputed causal factor in displacing projects.”

Giving examples of how investment-induced displacement has taken shape, ranging from a large number of big dams built across India, to projects implemented by such big companies like NALCO, Vedanta, POSCO, and others, the authors rightly say, “Abundant resources attract abundant exploitation, and in the ultra-capitalist system currently in place, this means ruthless invasion of traditional subsistence village areas, dressed up as ‘development’.” POSCO’s proposed steel plant-cum-port and captive power station—with an FDI investment of $12 billion—on the fertile coastal land in Jagatsinghpur district, Odisha, has not just displaced betel-vine farmers and fishermen, affecting over 3,000 acres of forest land. The project would need mining on Khandadhara, threatening Odisha’s tallest waterfall and at least 75 tribal communities. The area has “exceptional biodiversity”, with “key species” such as the gaur, the tiger and the elephant.

While referring to the laws which purportedly promise protection to the tribal communities against this kind of offensive, the authors compel one to ponder over whether these have actually helped the adivasis.  And for this, they give the example of highly the proclaimed Forest Rights Act (FRA), promulgated in 2006. They agree that the FRA is being used by activists and tribals as a symbol of affirming people’s basic rights—the rights tribals have been denied since colonial times. But they believe, it threatens to “effect a vast privatization of the forest, spelling death for the symbiosis which maintains the forest as a community resource shared with wildlife”. They characterise this as a profound danger, saying it would undo “traditional social structure, transforming social relations into the mould of capitalist competition…”

Jeemol Unni
Jeemol Unni

This appears to be a debatable observation, as most tribal activists (backed by politicians) strongly feel that by giving pattas to adivasis, the tribals would be empowered. In fact, social activists and tribal politicians have been in the forefront of the struggle to provide ownership rights to the tribals for the last several decades. The struggle for tribal land is being used against big corporates who are seeking to destroy forests for their interests – and the authors agree that this is a positive development. There is a distinct view that if tribals are not given land rights, they would lose interest in forests. Thanks to the long-drawn-out struggle, the FRA simplified the procedures of turning tribals into owners of lands they had long been tilling. The law considers any evidence for handing over land to tribals as valid, including a resolution by the tribal gram sabha or any slip suggesting that they were cultivating a particular land before a particular date in 2005. Further, the law also has important provisions giving tribals rights over community resources, including land.

The authors, however, do not criticize the Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act, 1996, which mandates that a state shall not make any legislation which is inconsistent with the customary rights of the scheduled areas. The PESA Act empowers tribal gram sabhas with rights over natural resources. The authors praise it as a constitution within the Constitution, “which attempts to bring together in a single frame two different worlds: the informal system of tribal communities governed by their respective customs and traditions, and the formal system of the state governed exclusively by laws.”

However, their main concern is, and rightly so, that the Act is not being implemented in states in the right spirit. In several states, tribal gram sabhas have been merely given power of consultation and not consent, thus diluting the principle of self-governance. This is clearly against the very spirit of the Act.

Despite all this, the authors recognise that India has some of the world’s best legislation for protecting the environment and people’s basic rights. Their main apprehension is that the legislation is often contravened, sometimes changed through directions from the financial elite, and “has to contend with rival that has grown up in a body of company law that basically facilitates the interests of the joint stock limited company over and above the interests of the public.”

In the ultimate analysis, the authors think – and one is in complete agreement them here – that the main struggle in India today is between pro-people laws and efforts by the corporate sector and other vested interests to dilute them.  According to them, “In India, this conflict between different bodies of legislation is apparent between ‘pro-people’ laws such as FRA, PESA and the National Rural Employment Guarantee  Act (NREGA), and ‘pro-corporate’ laws based around facilitating companies’ takeover of land and resources, such as the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act, 2005, and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Bill, 2012. This conflict between laws is compounded by frequent changes in legislation.”

An evidence of this struggle is the way Parliament enacted the land acquisition amendment law in 2013, and how opposing sides heavily lobbied for and against its provisions. Called Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, replacing the 120-year-old legislation, the law has many positive features, but – acting under the elite pressure – it retains the colonial principle of the state’s ‘eminent domain’ and retains a “very anti-people sense of public purpose” (authors’ words). Social activists and academics across India, while accepting the new law, point out that their main struggle will now be against this amorphous notion of “public purpose” to hand over land to the corporate sector.

This is a compelling book which should be a primer for post-graduates of development studies who may still have a doubt that knowledge is best produced in the North. It is just that these southern economists challenge paradigms which the northern economists have no way of even comprehending. It is thus a book that supports arguments for bottoms-up planning wherein communities know what they want, and need entitlements, and to ensure a fair share of their contribution to the GDP in the manner and logistics of implementation chosen by themselves.

Published in the “Indian Journal of Labour Economics” (Volume 56, October-December 2013


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