Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Social unrest and 10% growth

In 2005. there were 84,000 public protests in China. Indian economists and planners who are keen to emulate the Chinese economic model would do well to heed this, says Ashish Kothari, since the unrest in China, as in India in recent years, is fuelled by the inequities resulting from the race to double-digit growth

Singur, Nandigram and China have some interesting links. One is obvious: they are all under communist regimes. More important, however, is a not so obvious connection: they are all symbolic of the growing violence that governments are inflicting on their own people, and the growing public unrest in response.

Indian economists and planners, who admire China’s ‘economic miracle’ and want India to emulate it, would do well to heed some startling statistics. In 2005 (figures are not yet available for 2006), there were 84,000 incidents of public protest in China; 230 a day, one every six minutes. This was a 10-fold rise over incidents in 1993 (about 8,700). Also noticeable is the trend towards larger and larger protests, with more recent ones involving thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of people. Many observers of Chinese affairs believe that, astonishing as it is, even the figure of 84,000 is probably a gross underestimate, given that media censorship would have blocked reportage of many others.

Why should India’s development planners worry about social unrest in China? Because the forces causing the unrest are much the same as those being unleashed in India in the race to achieve a double-digit figure of economic growth. Albert Keidel, formerly senior economist at the World Bank’s Beijing office, has linked the protests to displacement and dislocation caused by China’s economic model. In the 1990s, worker lay-offs caused by economic reforms affected 50 million workers. In the last few years, the biggest cause of unrest has become the takeover of farmlands and forcible evictions for urban growth, industries, shopping malls and infrastructure projects.

In December 2005, villagers of Dongzhou village, Guangdong province, protested the setting up of a power plant. In January 2006, thousands of protesters clashed with police over inadequate compensation for farmland acquired for industrial use in Panlong village, Sanjiao township, Guangdong province. In April 2005, 20,000 peasants from several villages in Zhejiang province, who had been complaining for four years of industrial pollution that had ruined their agricultural livelihood, clashed with police. The factories were eventually shut down and protest leaders were arrested. Still earlier in 2004, about 90,000 villagers protested impending displacement by a hydro-electric dam in western China, and the authorities had to impose martial law to quell the agitations. Most protests have been peaceful, but some have resorted to violence. In August 2005, unemployed residents of Daye, Hubei province, attacked government offices and destroyed cars after police used dogs to break up a demonstration over an official plan to annex Daye to a larger city, Huangshi.

In Guangzhou, according to the police, forcible evictions constituted nearly one-fourth of protest activities in the city in 2003-04.

Sounds familiar? It should. Everyday in newspapers, one reads of such protests in India. The unrest in West Bengal, at Singur (against a proposed automobile plant of the Tatas) and Nandigram (against a proposed Special Economic Zone for a chemical complex), are the latest to hit the headlines. But they have been preceded by dozens more in only the last two years. Since January 2006, adivasis facing eviction by a proposed Tata steel plant in Kalinganagar, Orissa, have blocked the road under the banner of the Visthapan Virodhi Janmanch. Their farmer counterparts in Keonjhar have protested the proposed Arcelor Mittal steel plant. Thirty thousand farmers protested against a Reliance Special Economic Zone (SEZ) outside the Commissioner's office in Navi Mumbai in September 2006. Villagers slated to be displaced by three SEZs around Pune rallied on October 6, 2006. In Sonepat district, Haryana, the Bharatiya Kisan Union has led protests by 12 villages against the government's plan to set up the Rajiv Gandhi Education City on prime agricultural land. Adivasi and peasant movements in Jharkhand led to a mass protest in November 2005 against the industrialisation policy of the state. Thousands of fisherfolk on Orissa’s coasts have protested the proposed handing over of vast areas for the Dhamra and Posco ports, expansion of the Gopalpur port, and offshore oil drilling by Reliance and ONGC. Their counterparts in Tamil Nadu have physically tried to stop work on the controversial Sethu Samudran project in the Gulf of Mannar. On December 18, 2006, 15,000 adivasis and dalits rallied in Harda, Madhya Pradesh, against the state government’s proposals to hand over huge tracts of lands to private companies. In Manipur, indigenous peoples’ organisations have held several protest demonstrations against plans to build big hydro-electric dams that will take away forests and cultivated lands. These are but a handful of examples amongst hundreds in the last few years.

There are no consolidated figures of public protests in India, so it is difficult to say whether we are winning this race against China or not. But if not already, we will soon. The Indian State’s blind pursuit of the figure 10 has given birth to programmes like the SEZ, and to the opening up of even sensitive tribal areas for mining, industries, and tourism complexes. SEZs are particularly brazen, with the government virtually treating them like ‘foreign territory’, granting them a range of exemptions from Indian laws. With about 400 on the anvil, SEZs are taking up enormous chunks of rural land (farms, pastures, other common lands), with the worst affected being marginal farmers. In many places, farmers are not taking this lying down; they are protesting, vehemently and sometimes violently. Interestingly, many of the protests reported from China are from their SEZs or similar areas given preferential treatment…and it is from them that we have taken the cue for this new form of internal colonialism.

Several analysts have linked China’s unrest to the growing inequities generated by the current economic growth model. By 2005, the country’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, had reached between 0.45 and 0.53 (from about 0.34 in 1999), one of the highest in Asia (a measure of 1 is total inequity, in which one person owns all the wealth). Such inequities are reported to be on the rise in India since the process of globalisation began, with a visibly growing gap between a tiny minority who are shooting into the lists of the global rich, and the vast majority who remain impoverished. In 2005, the Gini coefficient for India was calculated at between 0.37 and 0.42, depending on which source one took. These inequities are manifested in the increasingly conspicuous luxurious lifestyles of the elite, and are obvious sources of resentment and anger. It is a matter of shame that 15 years after the ‘economic reforms’ catapulted us into the globalised economy, India as a superpower ranks only 126th (out of 177 countries) on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Even amongst 102 developing countries, it ranks only 55th. Most indicators of human welfare are abysmal, with countries having much slower economic growth rates doing much better. Public health expenditure at 1.2% of GDP and public expenditure on education at 3.3% are amongst the world’s lowest. Sanitation and water access have shown marked improvement, but nearly 70% of the population still does not have improved sanitation. 47% of children below 5 are underweight, 30% of the population is below the officially defined poverty line. Even as we celebrate the entry of some Indians into the world’s billionaires list, 80% of the population earns less than Rs 90 a day. India’s shining growth rate is concentrating benefits in a tiny section of its population…why would the massive numbers of people left out in the cold not protest?

An interesting aspect of China’s economic growth is the heavy concentration of industries and infrastructure along its coast. Not surprising, given its export orientation. Again, the parallel with India is striking. Very many of the approximately 250 SEZs so far approved are close to the coast. The Indian government is actively considering diluting the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, which had to some extent kept destructive development away from many sensitive coastal stretches. The proposed changes, based on the recommendations of a committee headed by M S Swaminathan, would considerably weaken environmental regulations. Large-scale commercial development would inevitably threaten fragile ecosystems and millions of fisherfolk and coastal farmers, as already witnessed for instance in the SEZ being set up on the Kutch coast in Gujarat. Fisherpeople across India have already led a series of mass protests against the takeover of their waters and lands, a movement that will only intensify with the proposed changes in the CRZ notification and with more SEZs being approved. Large-scale social destabilisation of India’s coasts can surely not be a recipe for a secure future.

Public unrest is bound to grow elsewhere too. Across much of India, there has in the past been a spirit of tolerance, indifference, or sheer helplessness to a range of injustices. This has subdued the potential for protest. But as people get pushed further against the wall, as civil society actors facilitate greater social mobilisation, and as communities increasingly find their voice, this will change. As has happened in China, where dissent has long been suppressed. Open expressions of anger and resentment will only increase, and undoubtedly some will be violent.

What is most worrying is the response of the Indian State. Will it react in the same way as the Chinese government? President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have noted the significance of the protests, and even acknowledged that they have to do with some failures of the State. But their dominant response till recently has been to clamp down on what they call “mass incidents”. Several provincial governments have dealt with protesters harshly. The Dongzhou agitation was subdued by police opening fire and killing between 3 and 20 farmers (depending on which source one believes). Three hundred hired thugs were sent in to beat up farmers camping in protest on land taken over for a power plant in Dingzhou (Hebei province). A video shot by a brave farmer shows men armed with pipes, knives and guns brutally attacking the villagers. In October 2004, armed police opened fire on 10,000 farmers facing relocation because of a new dam in Ya’an, Sichuan, killing at least one protester; in retaliation, the crowd killed two policemen. Dozens of protestors and supporters of movements have simply disappeared in various parts of the country.

Democracy in India makes it much harder for the government to clamp down on dissent. Nevertheless, if trends continue, we too will head the same way. On March 14, 2007, at least 14 people were killed by police firing indiscriminately at a public protest against the proposed SEZ at Nandigram in West Bengal. In January 2006, 13 adivasis (and two policemen) were killed in Kalinganagar in clashes over the construction of a boundary wall for Tata’s proposed steel plant. Farmers protesting the seizure of their land for a SEZ in Mann, Maharashtra, faced police bullets on March 9, 2006. On March 27, 2006, fisherfolk at Dibbapalem village of Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh, were fired upon because they had raised their voice against evictions for the proposed Gangavaram Port and five-lane road. At least one fishworker was killed, several injured. In Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, over a dozen tribal people were injured in police firing at the construction site of the Karcham-Wantoo hydro-electric dam which threatens to displace them. Section 144 or other prohibitory orders have been commonly used by district administrations to quell agitations, even when peaceful; well-known are the ones in adivasi districts of Orissa and Singur in West Bengal. There are increasing signs of the government losing patience, and using strong-arm tactics. Is this what Chidambaram implied, knowingly or unknowingly, when he said “dissent will be brushed aside”?

In China, the government has also imposed press censorship. Editors of all newspapers have been told not to report protests, and journalists covering such events have been imprisoned, harassed, or stripped of their jobs. This too may not happen immediately in India, for our press is still fiercely independent. But strangely, there is already some self-censorship creeping in, with several prominent dailies blanking out incidents of public protest unless the presence of celebrities makes them difficult to ignore.

One final worry is the reaction of the elite and upper middle classes. Being direct beneficiaries of the 10% economic growth model, and being in any case brought up to look at the poor with disdain, the increasing social unrest will only add to their bias. Protestors will be labeled irresponsible and anti-national, and as always, the victims will be blamed for the crime. Many of us will also blame vested political interests for the unrest, and undoubtedly a number of the agitations are fueled (or exploited) by such forces. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the increasing social unrest in this manner. Across the country, people are indeed being marginalised, evicted, dispossessed of the little they have, and very many of the movements have arisen spontaneously against this injustice, or at most been facilitated by civil society organisations which have a community base. To ignore them, or treat them as “politically motivated”, will not make the unrest go away.

If economic development is not drastically re-oriented to cater first to the needs of those who still live off the land, forests and water, or toil in our factories and construction sites (indeed those who feed all of us and keep the country running through toil and labour) we face a future of increasing injustice and unrest. And undoubtedly, more violence. The State can choose to deal with this with strong-arm measures, or it can choose to bring in the economic, institutional and environmental changes in policy that would provide security to such people. Belatedly in China, the government is contemplating measures such as better management of land use, strengthening the legal system, protecting farmers’ land, raising rural incomes, increasing social spending on healthcare and education, and abolishing the national tax on farmers. These are necessary steps towards a comprehensive reassessment of the 10% economic growth model, which India would do well to heed. Piecemeal measures announced by the central government in response to growing protest, such as reducing the amount of land to be given to SEZs, or improving rehabilitation measures, are not going to make the crisis go away.

The choice is clear, and it has to be made soon if we are not to slip into a state of affairs so riddled with unrest that the government is tempted to repeat what Indira Gandhi once did: impose a state of internal emergency.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2007