Sunday, December 27, 2009

Will anything change in 2010?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 27, 2009

Can we look forward to development in 2010 that will not make the poor in the country poorer?


IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS: Farmers protesting land acquisition in Maharashtra.

As the sun gets ready to set, bringing to an end another year, we are forced to pause, to consider how the past year has gone by and whether the next will be different. For millions of Indians, who continue to live in poverty and whose numbers have grown statistically, there is little cause to cheer.

As if developmental policies and environmental degradation were not enough to increase the levels of deprivation of those living at the margins, there is now an additional, and more virulent, policy that will exacerbate poverty all over this country. And that is the policy to forcibly seize thousands upon thousands of acres of land, belonging to farmers and communities, for Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Every now and then, people's resistance to this blatant land grab breaks into the news. When political parties are involved, it is dismissed as the work of a “disgruntled” opposition. When it is apolitical, it is seen as the work of the anti-development brigade who resist any form of “progress”.

Yet you only need to go to the beautiful state of Goa, where thousands of Indians and foreigners go at this time of the year, to realise the extent of the fraud that is being played out in the name of SEZ. For, in a state, where a highly literate and involved citizenry has actively questioned and opposed projects seen to be detrimental to the environment and to Goa's development, thousands of acres of land have been acquired for one purpose and without any explanation diverted to another.

Taken forcibly

The Bhootkhamb Plateau in Kerim, northeast Goa, is one such example. It is one of the many plateaus that dot Goa and that are repositories of biodiversity, the source of much of the water supply and of grazing lands that are jointly owned by the community. In 1989, 123,200 sq metres of land on the Bhootkhamb Plateau were acquired under provisions of the Land Acquisition Act by the Goa Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) for an industrial project — Dupont's Nylon 66 factory. Nylon 66 had tried to set up shop elsewhere in India but had been rejected on environmental grounds. The people of Kerim and surrounding villages realised this and decided to oppose the plant. They put up a spirited resistance and in the ensuing confrontation between the villagers and the police, one young man was killed.

Today, his memorial stands as a reminder to the struggles of the past but the villagers continue to struggle even today. The land taken then for Nylon 66, a project that was ultimately abandoned, is still cordoned off. It has now been handed over to a pharmaceutical company under provisions of the SEZ. But the villagers will have none of it.

Swati, a spirited young teacher from Kerim, stands at the site and tells us what she and her fellow villagers feel. “We don't want industrialisation in our village”, she says. “We have seen in Goa that whenever there is industrialisation, we don't get jobs and the water dries up. We want our land back. We will decide what we want. The government cannot come and force us. We want our village to remain a village.”

Swati's fears are not unfounded. Even though all work on the proposed SEZ was supposed to have stopped as the Goa government has decided not to sanction any SEZs, the villagers discovered that an illegal tube well was being sunk on the site. Over 200 of them forced their way onto the site and stopped work. They fear that such tube wells will ultimately dry up all their sources of water.

In fact, for the first time, many villagers in Goa are experiencing a shortage of water. They are also witness to piles of industrial waste being burned on other plateaus, and hillsides being gouged out by earthmovers as the red sand is indiscriminately excavated for construction activities elsewhere. In front of their eyes, they are witnessing the destruction of their environment. Not surprisingly, even the easy-going people of this verdant state are now angry and frustrated.

Tragic stories

Further north of Goa, in the state of Gujarat, the story is not very different, only more tragic in many ways. Lalit Vachani, in his arresting documentary film “The Salt Stories” captures this in many touching sequences. The film retraces Gandhiji's salt march of 1930 from Sabarmati to Dandi in the context of modern Gujarat. One of the wrenching sequences shows Rajubhai, a slum dweller living on the banks of the Sabarmati, under the historic Ellis Bridge where Gandhiji held a massive rally. He faces eviction because the Government has plans to develop the riverfront, reflecting the global vision that Chief Minister Narendra Modi constantly articulates for the state he rules. But for men like Rajubhai, there is no place in this glittering global vision. He breaks down in front of the camera as he thinks of the future. “All we want is shelter and food”, he keeps repeating. When Vachani filmed Rajubhai, his slum was under threat of demolition. By the time he completed the film the slum had been demolished and Rajubhai had died, probably a broken man.

The film reminds us of the distance we have travelled in this country from when men and women marched alongside Gandhi to defy the Salt Tax imposed by the British, risked beatings and imprisonment but set in motion a form of non-violent resistance that is still spoken of and emulated. The villagers of Kerim in Goa, for instance, are convinced that this is the strategy they must follow today.

Lingering prejudices

But in Gandhi's own state, the message seems to have been lost, as Vachani reveals. The prejudice against Dalits and Muslims needs little provocation to be expressed. A Gandhian who remembers the struggles of the past has no hesitation in calling Muslims “demons” and insisting that they are to blame for everything. He sees no contradiction between calling himself a Gandhian and pouring venom on a community that Gandhi fought hard to protect in India. En route to Dandi, there are “temples” in the name of Gandhi that are locked and places where he stopped that lie in a state of disrepair.

The one glimmer of hope is from the village of Napa, a Muslim majority village, where even today the communities live together and carry forward the Gandhian legacy. And in Dandi itself, where Mohan Dandekar echoes something that Gandhi himself would have said had he been alive today — that development should not make the poor in this country even poorer.

2010 will be a year where this proposition will be tested yet again. In the name of progress, islands of prosperity in the form of SEZs are being created by forcibly depriving people of the one thing they call their own — their land. These islands will be foreign enclaves, not governed by the laws that apply to other Indian citizens. They promise employment but create nothing on the scale promised. And they are swallowing up land and resources at a pace that should make every Indian proud of the history of a country that fought colonial rule, wake up and think again.

(To read the original, click on the link above)

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