Tuesday, January 22, 2008

When development and tradition clash : India rising I


By Joan Martínez-Alier and Leah Temper

Last month, in Nandigram, West Bengal, police forced their way into barricaded villages slated for displacement.

The villagers were protesting the establishment of a special economic zone for the chemical industry and the forcible expropriation of approximately 22,000 acres of fertile farmland devoted to the cultivation of rice and betel leaf. After the dust cleared, at least 14 peasants were dead.

As India's economy continues to boom, resistance to the conversion of agricultural land to industrial purposes is being met with increasing state-sponsored violence.

These conflicts cannot be dismissed as an inevitable rite of passage on the road to development. Rather, they reveal deep underlying problems with India's bid to follow the Western model of modernization.

There is a clear danger that if violence escalates, the result may be the undermining of civil rights and of the very fabric of Indian democracy.

In Singur, West Bengal, there has been intense opposition to the establishment of a car factory to build an affordable "people's car" - a vehicle few of the displaced will be able to buy.

During pitched battles at the entry points of the site last January, 1,000 people were arrested and 40 injured when police used tear gas and water canon.

All across India, international corporations are on land-acquisition sprees for infrastructure projects and manufacturing plants. Some 220 so-called special economic zones have sprung up since 2000 in an attempt to spur foreign investment.

Meanwhile, the acquisition of land for mining of coal, iron ore and bauxite is sowing great discontent in the "mineral belt" of central and northeast India.

In January, we attended the first anniversary of the death of 13 Adivasis - India's indigenous tribal people - who were killed during a protest against a steel factory in the industrial park of Kalinga Nagar, in the state of Orissa.

Eight thousand peasants gathered from across the country to pay tribute to those who died and to assert their right to adequate compensation and a say in the process of development.

In Maikanch, Orissa, in 2000, three villagers were killed during a protest against a bauxite mine. Mourners gather there every Dec. 16, now another martyrs' day.

The poor and the lower castes are the most affected by India's industrial projects, especially tribal Adivasis, who make up 8 percent of the population yet account for up to 55 percent of those who are displaced because a disproportionate number of mines and dams are located on their resource-rich territory.

In many cases, the land is allegedly taken for a "public purpose," but then resold to private companies at a profit.

Those working the land often have no title and thus get no compensation. When they do, the amount paid is below market value and the livelihood value of the forest products they gather on communal or government land is ignored.

While the West subsidized its own industrial development through colonial spoils from overseas, India does not have the luxury to do so. In India, the "commodity frontiers" are now full of people who refuse to make way for mines, dams and industrial parks.

By branding the agitators as anti-development, the Indian government is missing the opportunity to engage in dialogue about what kind of development the people want. Conflicts on land use are also conflicts on livelihoods and on deeply held cultural values.

Because environmental services, landscape and ideas like sacredness cannot be put into monetary terms, a large gulf exists between those arguing for their preservation and the purely monetary calculations of government officials. In Niyamgiri, Orissa, for example, a bauxite mine sits at the top of a mountain which is sacred for the local Dongria Kondh tribe.

If the demands of the distressed rural people go unheeded, the violence in Nandigram will be a small taste of the unrest to come in India's quest for industrial development at any cost.

Joan Martínez-Alier is president of the International Society for Ecological Economics. Leah Temper is a doctoral student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Published: April 27, 2007