Home Governance ‘Development’ for the poor The subaltern perspective

‘Development’ for the poor The subaltern perspective

The contradiction between development for the poor through equitable allocation of land and resources and destruction by the rich for reaping profits is what led to the downfall of the UPA. Modi should be wary of falling into the same trap

Jal Satyagraha to protest against Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) at Idinthakarai, in Koodankulam

PRIME Minister NarendraModi’s governance agenda, unveiled by the President in his address to Parliament on June 9, 2014, gives prime position to pro-poor development: “My Government is dedicated to the poor. Poverty has no religion, hunger has no creed, and despair has no geography. The greatest challenge before us is to end the curse of poverty in India. My government will not be satisfied with mere ‘poverty alleviation’; and commits itself to the goal of ‘poverty elimination’. With a firm belief that the first claim on development belongs to the poor; the government will focus its attention on those who need the basic necessities of life most urgently. It will take necessary steps to provide security in its entirety to all citizens; through empathy, support and empowerment.” (Para 7)

Pro-poor ‘development’ has to be sustainable if it is to have any meaning. The basic concept of sustainable development is one where livelihood activities can be carried on for any length of time because no resources are being consumed for life-support systems other than those which can be replaced

Subalterns are poor who are in subordinate positions in society. They are the ones who are deprived of ‘basic necessities and security in its entirety’ by the predatory model of development that was being pursued during the last two decades. A subaltern group is one that is alienated from mainstream social and economic relations, based on traditions of caste, creed, community and income levels. Because of their subordinate position, subalterns have fewer opportunities to achieve recognition of their problems, whether itis poverty, structural inequality or environmental degradation.

Pro-poor ‘development’ has to be sustainable if it is to have any meaning. The basic concept of sustainable development is one where livelihood activities can be carried on for any length of time because no resources are being consumed for life-support systems other than those which can be replaced. Once society perceives that sustainability means conservation of life-support systems, people will demand it on the grounds of welfare, equity or economics. This demand will arise from the poor and the low-income groups who suffer the most from pollution and the high costs associated with resource depletion (land, forests, rivers, ocean, lakes, ecosystems, air, water) without, in any manner, gaining from scarcities created thereof.

A pro-poor approach to sustainable development has five main areas:

  • Right to inclusive and equitable economic growth.
  • Right to a corruption-free society.
  • Right to a clean, green and safeenvironment.
  • Access to information and public participation in decision-making.
  • Promoting and defending the protection of the environment and human rights.

Subaltern perspectives on sustainable development can be wide and varied; and perspectives often transform into struggles. Among the issues first and foremost is the right to forest land. The most prominent struggle to protect forest land is by the tribals of the Dandakaranya region—in east-central India—against mindless exploitation by forest officials and government-sponsored private mining interests. This struggle emanated from the original subaltern perspective, highlighting the colonial takeover of people’s forests and the overbearing post-colonial State. The Dandakaranya region—covering the entire States of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha and portions of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal—represents about 25 per cent of India’s forest wealth.

India once had a thick forest cover with high biodiversity and a symbiotic relationship among the various living beings, such as plants, micro-organisms, insects, herbivorous and carnivorous animals, fish and birds. Tribal people, forming a part of this complex forest ecosystem, represented the real indigenous population of India. They made a living as hunters, gatherers, trappers, fishers, pastoralists, shifting cultivators and peasant farmers inside the forests. Some of them practised herbal medicine. They had a good working relationship with the non-tribals living outside the forest areas to barter goods and act as guides to those visiting the forests for hunting and recreation.

These tribal people acted as the custodians of the forest flora and fauna. The real destruction of India’s forests and wildlife commenced only during the British rule. They created the Forest Department, first to assess the magnitude of India’s forest wealth and then for its large-scale exploitation for export and local use. While so, they never questioned the dependence of the tribal people on forest resources.

IN independent India, government, as a part of its socialist policy, made the employees of the Forest Department the exclusive owners of the forests, ignoring the riparian right of tribals living on forest resources for thousands of years. In the event, tribal dalits (scheduled tribes), constituting around 8 per cent of India’s total population, lost their independence, became ‘subordinates’ in their own land and now constitute the most disadvantaged ‘subaltern group’ in the country.

The stringent forest laws and rules gave so much power to the forest officials that they could successfully harass and prevent tribal people from the age-old practice of living on forest resources. As an alternative way of living, the government allocated wastelands bordering forests for tribals. The tribals who took up agriculture could not do well owing to lack of previous experience, capital and infrastructure. Skewed policies and practices adopted by successive governments created misunderstanding and conflicts between tribals and non-tribals and brought about confrontation between them as well as withthe police. While tribals suffered, antisocial elements flourished.

Ironically, the very same Dandakaranya forests have mineral ores in abundance worth billions of dollars. Governments, run by neo-liberals and corrupt elements, have entered into numerous MoUs for the mining of the ores with multinational, transnational and Indian monopoly companies. Such extractive business ventures faced stiff opposition from the tribals and their aggressive representatives. In response, governments unleashed ruthless force to suppress the tribals. The result is that now, with the silent support of the tribal Dalits, forests are virtually controlled by Maoists, Naxalites, poachers and activists of extremist organisations. Non-resolution of a conflict in a democratic and pro-people manner has led to the escalation of this silent ‘subaltern struggle’ into a near-war situation, with the State contemplating military intervention which could be disastrous.

Agitation against POSCO-India’s project in Odisha is to safeguard subaltern’s right to farming land and protection of the coastal ecosystemthat was being ravaged to “bring prosperity and well-being” to people through industrialisation. The project was to build a steel plant yielding 12 million tonnes per year, with a captive port and iron ore mines, and acclaimed as the single largest infusion of FDI since the Indian economy liberalised in 1991, estimated at $12 billion.

Anti-POSCO activists protesting in Bengaluru in 2010

IN league with officials and politicians, POSCO obtained the Environmental and Coastal Regulation Zone clearances in a deceitful manner. To start with, this massive project was deliberately unbundled into its smaller parts and applications moved to secure their clearances as though they were independent projects (4 mtpa steel complexes, 400 mw power plants and captive “minor” port), even though they constituted one project and were situated within one complex and POSCO had clear intentions of ramping up production to the full capacity of 12 mtpa in just six years (by 2011). These clearances were given on the strength of a single-season rapid Environmental Impact Assessment!

The township project, requiring considerable additional land as well as huge water requirement, was suppressed. The port was designed for capesize ships—170,000 dtw capacity, each approximately 280 metres in length, perhaps the largest-built in Asia, to come into the ecologically sensitive Jatadhar creek. This would require 12-km channels and tranquil berthing facilities for which there would be massive sea walls built—one 2 km and another 1.6 km long. The devastation that such massive infrastructure facilities would cause is unimaginable, considering thatthe Jatadhar creek is an important nesting site for the critically endangered Olive Ridley turtles. This is the region of paankethis (betel vine farms) where sand dunes provide sweet soil and water and also protection during cyclones. Resistance to this project is from ordinary villagers who are apprehensive of losing land and livelihood. Protection of environmentally sensitive coastal ecosystem is a major aspect of this ‘subaltern struggle’.

Poor fisherfolk are the subalterns who protest against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant that deprives their right to fishing and also to safeguard the coastal ecosystem from ‘destructive development’. The subaltern perspective is that radioactivity in the air and water could cause cancer and other major ailments and fisherfolk would lose their livelihood due to seawater contamination. Any amount of arguments that the plant would bring about ‘development and growth’ does not appeal to the local community. For them life and safety of more than 10 lakh people living within 30 km of the plant is more important than the projected prosperity that electricity generated from the plant will usher in. Terrible happenings linked to the 2004 tsunami and 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster have only strengthened the fears that their lives and livelihood are under serious threat and one day, very soon, the fishing villages will cease to exist.

Agitation against POSCO-India’s project in Odisha is to safeguard the subaltern’s right to farming land and protection of the coastal ecosystem that was being ravaged to ‘bring prosperity and well-being’ to people through industrialisation

The subalterns affected by the 2800 MW Gorakhpur Nuclear Power Plant (GNPP) in Fatehabad district of Haryana are the small and marginal farmers. According to the Department of Atomic Energy 1,503 acres of land have been acquired for the project and the setting up of this plant would accelerate the pace of ‘development’.

Thiswater-guzzling plant is located on the fragile Fatehabad branch of the Bhakra Canal system. For operating this plant, the Haryana Government has allocated 320 cusecs of water from the State’s share under the Bhakra Water Sharing Agreement, 1959, between Punjab and Rajasthan, which binds Haryana, it being the successor State. Since the agreement mandates that Bhakra water can only be used for irrigation and generation of hydel power, this allocation is illegal.

Water-use allotment for irrigation in the culturable command area is 2.25 cusecs per thousand acres. As such, 320 cusecs can irrigate about 142,000 acres and diverting this quantum of water to generate nuclear power will deprive such a vast area of irrigation. Even taking into account 30 per cent of water that would be recycled back to the canal, the irrigated area lost would be over 100,000 acres. And, the polluted water returned to the canal would slow-poison the downstream farms and drinking water for millions of villagers.

This is a semi-arid region and water is the lifeline for its economy and sustenance. The power generated in this nuclear plant would no doubt lead to ‘development’ of MNC/commercial/residential/ industrial complexes, malls and theme parks in Delhi, Gurgaon and other places, but in the project-affected area agriculture will perish and radiation will causeserious damage to wildlife (deer/blackbuck) in the nearby villages.

Economic development without environmental sustainability is a farce, like a roof without a foundation. While subaltern groups struggle to retain this ‘basic foundation’, ruling elites seek to destroy it to build ‘fancy roofs’ in the name of ‘development’. This is the essence of subaltern struggle for sustainable development. At the core of this struggle is landand all nature’s endowments—water, forest, minerals—that go with it.

INDIA occupies just 2 per cent of the world’s land mass, but is home to 17 per cent of its population. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation, that prepared a report on desertification in 2007, about 69 per cent of land in the country is dry, making it vulnerable to water and wind erosion, salinisation and water logging. The new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, has stated that one-third of India’s land is turning into desert due to misuse and excessive exploitation. All these have happened in the name of ‘development’ and subalterns are the worst hit.

Even in the early days of the Modi Government, one could discern contradictions between ‘development’ for the poor through equitable allocation of land and resources and ‘destruction’ by the rich for reaping profits. Not resolving this contradiction and instead accelerating it by mortgaging land and resources to the marauding corporates led to the downfall of the UPA government. The NDA should not fall into this trap. Otherwise Modi’s ‘belief that the first claim on development belongs to the poor’ would remain only in the President’s address!

The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: deva1940@gmail.com

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