Development Through Industrialization? Or Environmental Colonialism Leading To Catastrophe?
By Aseem Shrivastava
10 March, 2007
“You can’t save land and water unless you can save agriculture and forests.”
- Prafullah Samantara, an activist from Orissa, speaking at the National Convention on Corporate Land-Grab at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, February 8, 2007
“If the company comes up we will lose thousands and thousands of acres of cultivable land and be reduced to beggars. That’s the reason why we won’t allow our land to be destroyed.”
- Shankar Prasad Muduli, a local farmer from Kashipur, Orissa, testifying before the Indian People’s Tribunal, October 2006.
In times of corporate totalitarianism such as ours, when the media – with visibly noble exceptions – is merely the obedient tail of the capitalist canine, the impression that is sought to be created is that in “the world’s largest democracy” there is an unchallenged consensus that India needs economic development, that rapid economic growth is the most reliable way to achieve it (through the infamous “trickle-down” effect), that this in turn is best achieved through break-neck industrialization and that anyone who stands in the way of such “development” needs to have her patriotic credentials (read: “head”) examined. This may include, for instance, those who (following the latest warnings of the IPCC) are pointing to dangerously threatened, rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers.
Nothing is in fact farther from the truth, especially when one keeps reminding oneself that the free press is city-based and is anything but free. People have by now heard of Nandigram and Singur – perhaps because they happen to be in Communist-ruled West Bengal, the hypocrisy of the government all too transparent there. However, as a National Convention held in New Delhi recently revealed there are fires of protest growing in number, frequency and intensity against the large-scale acquisition of land for purposes of industrial/infrastructural/real-estate “development” all across India. The question is whether city-based media outlets are reporting the facts adequately and accurately and whether urban elites have the integrity and courage to face the monstrous injustices that their leaders are busy inflicting on the countryside and its hapless populations.
Orissa: A plain enough case of environmental colonialism
Consider just one of many cases: Orissa. In addition to the massive bauxite mining (which has already disrupted the traditional livelihoods of dozens of local tribal communities), thanks to huge iron ore deposits under the forests, as many as 45 steel plants are on the anvil in this small state alone! Importantly, the people of the state have not asked for them. No democracy there, no plebiscite or referendum.
On the contrary human rights are being routinely violated under what can be best understood as a military-economic regime of extractive-colonialist globalization – whose competitive cost-cutting pressures, led by totalitarian, environmentally destructive China – are creating a lethal race to the bottom, undermining chances of sustainable development and of course, substantive democracy. Constitutional provisions and state tribal and environmental laws are both being routinely violated by the state government to override tribal and community rights to land and resources.
After visiting the joint venture project of Birla and Alcan, Utkal Alumina (UAIL), in Baphlimali (Kashipur), and reviewing the consequences of Sterlite’s aluminium project at Lanjigarh , the Indian People’s Tribunal recommended in October 2006 that the Orissa government “abandon the UAIL project with immediate effect.” Voices of protest from local tribes “are being met by repressive measures in the form of large scale arrests, disruption of public meetings by force, violent beatings to disperse gatherings, official encouragement to the employment of private goons by UAIL, midnight raids by the police, unmitigated violence on women and children. Deposing before the Tribunal Bhagban Majhi stated “instead of answering our concerns, they are replying with bullets and lathis.” What is even more shocking is that even minors like Pradip Majhi (aged 14) who deposed before the Tribunal spoke of being physically stripped and humiliated by the Police.”
People have expressed their displeasure and dissent in the tens of thousands: places like Kashipur, Kalinganagar, Jagatsinghpur and Gopalpur have been under siege for months (and often, years) by the police and paramilitaries on account of the angry political ferment over the past decade. The war between the corporate state and the people is on. The lands and water sources of farmers and forest-dwellers in these areas are being taken over through the powerful offices of the state government in order to make way for the steel and aluminium plants (and the associated coal, iron ore and bauxite mines) of business interests like Tatas, Jindals, POSCO, Mittal, Birlas, Alcan, Alcoa and Vedanta (Sterlite). Hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land have already been destroyed. Comparable areas of reserve forests have been torn out of the earth. Water sources are being polluted by mining and the industrial sludge. The air around the mines and factories is full of cancerous gases. After all, who has time to think of clean-up measures when Chinese competition is breathing down the necks of global players.
On many occasions peasants and tribals have been killed in police firing while resisting the take-over of their lands, forests and water resources. The defence of Jal, Jungle, Zameen, Zindagi – and not the treacherous hope of compensation, resettlement, rehabilitation, employment and “modernization” – are the issues as far as local populations are concerned. If “development” implies mere industrialization on their own backs and displacement from their lands and forests, the rural communities of Orissa have declared in no uncertain terms – often through the sacrifice of human lives – that they want none of it.
So if such “development” is not for the people of Orissa, who is the brutally break-neck industrialization in the state for? (Orissa attracted over 10% of the foreign direct investment in India in 2006.) It is for the many companies who have been gouging the earth to extract the abundant mineral wealth from the region (most of it lying under thick forests or farmed fields) for the price of dirt and make huge profits by selling abroad (If a company can get away by paying Rs.100-150 per ton of iron ore to the state and fetch a price of Rs.1500-3000 abroad – depending upon the grade of the ore – there is little surprise that there is a growing queue of foreign investors.)
It will make it a lot easier and faster for the Tatas to pay off the astronomical debt (of close to $10 billion: more than Orissa’s entire GDP) that they have taken on recently in order to acquire the Anglo-Dutch steel major, Corus. Importantly, it will enable the rich countries to derive the benefits of cheap steel (for construction, transport and industry) and aluminium (so critical to aeroplanes and soda-cans alike) while keeping “dirty” industries and mining away from their own environmentally sanitized shores (the reason why companies like Corus and Novelis have been selling out so readily – and at exorbitant prices – to Tatas and Birlas: the cleaner the industry the less likely it is to be auctioned off to bidders from countries like India or Brazil. On the contrary service sector businesses are being taken over by multinationals from rich countries: notice the recent acquisition of the Indian company Hutch-Essar by the British multinational Vodafone – the fact that it is led by an Indian CEO is of little import here (Pepsi does not become an Indian company simply because its CEO happens to be an Indian these days.))
The moral horror of such a pattern of industrialization in Orissa – fitting snugly and conveniently into a socially and ecologically unfair global division of labor and pollution – is that the beneficiaries from it (barring the few Netas and Babus who get cuts from each business contract) are not from Orissa but are scattered around urban India and the rest of the world. It is a thinly disguised form of environmental colonialism orchestrated by the comprador government of the state, the Mir Jafar dalals only too happy to sell off both their people and nature to outsiders.
Such a pattern of industrialization has less to do with development (understood as lasting change and transformation in the quality of people’s lives, reflected but minimally in such measures as life expectancy, the literacy rate and growth of real per capita income) than it has to do with the imperative to compete and win at any cost that Indian and global industrial business interests feel at this uncertain juncture of history. “Orissa is not there to enrich the rich and strengthen the economies of America and the West”, one activist from Orissa argues.
However, the Patnaik government of Orissa continues on its merry path, inviting investment recently from NRIs, among many others. The Korean steel giant POSCO has already planned on investing $12 billion in the state (though its tax breaks and other incentives amount, if it is possible to imagine, to an even greater sum). The same is true for Laxmi Mittal’s Mittal-Arcelor group (the world’s largest steel conglomerate) which signed a MoU with the Orissa government in December 2006, agreeing to invest $ 9 billion in Keonjhar district (and deriving tax benefits of comparable magnitude). Mittal has asked for 8000 acres of land (2000 acres more than POSCO) for the project. He has also asked that (just like the concession to POSCO) the land be classified as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), with all the attendant privileges, tantamount to a de jure suspension of the Indian Constitution.
Only the ecological future – global and local climate change, to name only one of dozens of environmental ailments brought on by mindless industrialization – will reveal the ultimately suicidal nature of this putatively “free market” economics – which is in fact a case of active promotion of private corporate profit by the state, even if it means rampant exploitation of the poor citizens (who are citizens for one day and subjects for 5 years) of a famous democracy, in addition to the rapid accretion to the ecological debt of the region.
The Indian People’s Tribunal reported last year in October “that the bauxite-mining project proposed by UAIL will have adverse environmental and health effects: water sources and agricultural land will be contaminated by toxic wastes, grasslands and forest land will be destroyed, and pollution including the release of cancerous gases that will create a health hazard for those living in proximity of the alumina refinery. Further the location of the mine in the Eastern ghats will cause irreversible loss of plant genetic material and biodiversity of this region.”
Let us forget any other ideals or values and come together to challenge the brutally flawed corporate vision – itself in accord with the so-called “neo-liberal” economics purveyed by Washington and its multilateral agencies – which imperils today the very basis of human survival in India.
Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, April 28, 2007