â€œYou canâ€™t save land and water unless you can save agriculture and forests.â€
– 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
â€œIf the company comes up we will lose thousands and thousands of acres of cultivableland and be reduced to beggars. Thatâ€™s the reason why we wonâ€™t allow our land to be destroyed.â€
– Shankar Prasad Muduli, a local farmer from Kashipur, Orissa, testifying before the Indian Peopleâ€™s Tribunal, October 2006.
In times of corporate totalitarianism such as ours, when the media â€“ with visibly noble exceptions â€“ is merely the obedient tail of the capitalist canine, the impression that is sought to be created is that in â€œthe worldâ€™s largest democracyâ€ 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 â€œtrickle-downâ€ effect), that this in turn is best achieved through break-neck industrialization and that anyone who stands in the way of such â€œdevelopmentâ€ needs to have her patriotic credentials (read: â€œheadâ€) 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 â€“ 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 â€œdevelopmentâ€ 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 â€“ whose competitive cost-cutting pressures, led by totalitarian, environmentally destructive China â€“ 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 Sterliteâ€™s aluminium project at Lanjigarh , the Indian Peopleâ€™s Tribunal recommended in October 2006 that the Orissa government â€œabandon the UAIL project with immediate effect.â€ Voices of protest from local tribes â€œare 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 â€œinstead of answering our concerns, they are replying with bullets and lathis.â€ 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.â€
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 â€“ and not the treacherous hope of compensation, resettlement, rehabilitation, employment and â€œmodernizationâ€ â€“ are the issues as far as local populations are concerned. If â€œdevelopmentâ€ 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 â€“ often through the sacrifice of human lives â€“ that they want none of it.
So if such â€œdevelopmentâ€ 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 â€“ depending upon the grade of the ore â€“ 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 Orissaâ€™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 â€œdirtyâ€ industries and mining away from their own environmentally sanitized shores (the reason why companies like Corus and Novelis have been selling out so readily â€“ and at exorbitant prices â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ fitting snugly and conveniently into a socially and ecologically unfair global division of labor and pollution â€“ 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 peopleâ€™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. â€œOrissa is not there to enrich the rich and strengthen the economies of America and the Westâ€, 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 Mittalâ€™s Mittal-Arcelor group (the worldâ€™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 â€“ global and local climate change, to name only one of dozens of environmental ailments brought on by mindless industrialization â€“ will reveal the ultimately suicidal nature of this putatively â€œfree marketâ€ economics â€“ 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 Peopleâ€™s Tribunal reported last year in October â€œthat 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.â€
Let us forget any other ideals or values and come together to challenge the brutally flawed corporate vision â€“ itself in accord with the so-called â€œneo-liberalâ€ economics purveyed by Washington and its multilateral agencies â€“ which imperils today the very basis of human survival in India.
Part II: Industrialization without a human face
â€œâ€¦ the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they’re doing is what we’ve already done, so you can’t criticise them for that. But what you can say is, it’s not going to work. And if it doesn’t work for China, by 2031 it won’t work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, nor for the other three billion people in the developing countries.
“And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated global economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain.
“The bottom lineâ€¦ is that we’re going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of a fossil-fuel based, automobile-centred, throw-away economy we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to have that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.”
– Lester Brown, leading environmentalist, quoted in The Independent, Oct 19, 2005
We live in an industrial society. It would be naÃ¯ve to believe that we can eschew it straight away. Yet, if something is good, it does not mean that more of it is better. This is the simple wisdom of optimization (as opposed to maximization). This is also what the imperative of ecological balance â€“ whereof our choices are ultimately limited, if any â€“ entails.
China is a deadly horse to chase!
Water, resource and energy-intensive industrialization is a prelude to ecological catastrophes as the emerging environmental facts from China amply demonstrate. According to a recent report by Greenpeace China is the worldâ€™s biggest destroyer of rainforests today. Logging in natural forests was banned in China after catastrophic floods in 1998. Since then, a Greenpeace expert points out, â€œthe Chinese are ripping the heart out of the world’s irreplaceable rainforests to make cheap products like plywood for Western consumer markets.â€ Forests in Russia, Burma, Indonesia and Guinea are suffering on account of the Chinese off-take. The Chinese plywood export market has grown by more than 1300% during the past decade, with customers mainly in the rich countries. Half the worldâ€™s tropical hardwood logs are headed for China, much of it illegally logged.
China already consumes more grain, meat, coal and steel (4 of the 5 main basic goods) than the US and is slated to become the biggest consumer of oil in the foreseeable future and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the next few years itself. In another two decades its consumption of paper is expected to be twice the entire production of the whole world today. Will there be any forests and water left on earth if this is allowed to happen? And will global climate remain fit for human habitation?
Chinese authorities admit that 16 of the worldâ€™s 20 most polluted cities are now in China. Half of the water in its 7 largest rivers is not even fit for industrial purposes. Over a quarter million Chinese die premature deaths every year on account of air pollution. There are 75 million attacks of asthma annually. One-third of the countryâ€™s land area receives acid rain. Parts of the world as far afield as Canada, California, Japan and the Korean peninsula now suffer the consequences of particulate pollution and acid rain because of rapid coal-fired economic growth in China (Two coal-fired power stations are being commissioned in China every week.) Chinese black carbon emissions are raising temperatures and impacting weather patterns throughout the Pacific Rim. Desertification in Northern China is growing at an alarming 3500 sq kms a year. Countries downstream from Chinese rivers complain of water shortages, siltation and pollution. The fish catch in the China seas has been declining sharply on account of coastal pollution from industries and overfishing.
Whatever is happening in China is happening in India too, albeit with a slight time lag, given that the Chinese are better organized and much more ahead in the race.
To take just one instance of the sort of problems India is confronted with, consider the growth in the automobile market. If our cities are not able to handle the little growth in traffic on account of the growing affluence and creditworthiness of merely the top 15-20% of our population, how can we expect them to deal with the traffic snarls that will arise from a situation in which 80-85% of the country â€“ like in the West or in Japan â€“ starts finding cars affordable? Success may here betray our greatest failures.
It is not just that urban space and infrastructure are in desperately short supply. Oil and gas resources of the planet are not there forever. Experts across the spectrum concur on the prospect of the coming scarcity of energy, fearing that many future wars will be fought to ensure access to energy reserves. Nor will the global (and local) atmosphere wait to heat up till after countries like India and China have caught up with the indulgent living standards of the West.
Assuredly, we need at least two more planets if the 40% of living humanity in India and China are to live like their counterparts in the USA â€“ who, with just a quarter of the Indian population, are making full use of the planet we do have.
Evidently, if something (energy and resource-intensive industrialization) was once good for the presently enriched nations it does not imply that it would be good for the impoverished nations and for the world as a whole. There may not be a world left to experience the benefit!
Why lessons learnt from the Western historical experience do not apply to India
In relation to the pattern of industrial growth in India, consider another thought. Modern technology has evolved in labor-scarce economies. Thus, it has typically tended to substitute labor. Today, it is impossible to compete in the global market without adopting the latest methods of production, thus ensuring the highest labor productivity and the best quality â€“ which naturally generate little fresh employment, given massive advances in automation. This has given rise to the phenomenon of â€œjoblessâ€ (and in some cases, job-destroying) growth.
More of such industrialization only displaces more labor. If it creates fresh employment opportunities it is for a far lower number of more highly skilled positions. Such a pattern of industrialization gives the lie to the claims to inclusiveness that are made on behalf of it. It is starkly exclusive, not inclusive.
All this is bad news for labor-surplus societies like India where most people are all too dependent on agriculture and allied activities and are thus very vulnerable to dispossession and impoverishment (on account of takeover of their resource base by the state or the corporations) but are in no position whatsoever to step into the few high-skill jobs that are created, especially given the long neglect of primary education and vocational training.
The argument is all too often heard nowadays â€“ sometimes from the highest portals â€“ that it does not pay to farm any more, that agriculture is unable to absorb so large a population as a huge country like India has, that therefore, as in the historical economic experience of the now developed countries, labor must transfer from agriculture to industry and services over time.
Such a seriously mistaken view ignores at least three key features of the Western historical experience which make a replication of those processes in an Indian setting most unlikely, even impossible.
Firstly, when the rich countries of today were setting off on the road to high economic growth, manufacturing industry was able to absorb much of the labor that was (forcibly) removed from the land because of very special circumstances. Markets were expanding, resources were not scarce (yet), there were no fears of environmental crises on the horizon and, as already indicated, industrial technology had not become as capital-intensive as it has today. The employment intensity of economic growth, to use the official parlance, was still high. This situation has changed dramatically in virtually all respects today.
Secondly, most significantly, the colonies and the settler colonies were there to absorb the labor that was thrown off the land in Europe. At least 50 million people migrated from Europe during the first few centuries of the industrial revolution. Migration softened the blows that industrialization had delivered to the European peasantry. Countries like India and China do not have this luxury today. Legend has it that in early United States all a farmer had to do was to let his horse run loose on an area of land to claim possession of it. Where are the Canadas, Americas and Australias that will absorb the surplus labor from India and China today?
Thirdly, the political context in which India is industrializing and urbanizing today is perhaps unique in the history of nations. There is probably no case of a country industrializing and urbanizing from a largely agrarian society under conditions of universal adult franchise in democratic political conditions. Western and East Asian elites were able to uproot huge rural populations and move them away from their homes and livelihoods through coercion by more or less authoritarian regimes. Recall that the political vote in Western democracies â€“ when they were industrializing and urbanizing â€“ was restricted to property-owners till well into the 19th century. Where labor immobility and resource pressures stood in the way of capitalist industrial growth â€“ as in the case of the US Cotton South in the middle of the 19th century â€“ civil wars were fought.
There are other arguments which give the lie to the view popular among our elites and their think-tanks today – that rural populations ought to be shifted from their present locations in order to improve their prospects. So many urban authorities in India are engaged in the task of â€œcleaning upâ€ the cities, demolishing the homes and hutments of the poor after evicting them. When the rural agricultural poor are forced to migrate to the cities to look for better prospects in industry or in the service sector, they are thrown out summarily from their new abodes. Where â€“ outside petty crime â€“ are they supposed to find their new livelihoods?
Playing with fundamentals: The suicidal step-treatment of agriculture in a primarily agrarian society
It is also said that agriculture has become uneconomical for most cultivators in India. It is never pointed out what has made this so. As a concession to the rich countries under the new WTO regulations, Indian state policies over the past decade and a half have liberalized the trade in agricultural products. Import duties have been reduced or removed from such goods as cotton and wheat, exposing farmers to the winds and vagaries of the world commodities market. Farmers are not offered the support prices they once got from the state.
Meanwhile, governments in enriched nations are routinely subsidizing their agriculture to the tune of $1 billion a day. All this is in conformity with the enriched-country definition of â€œfree tradeâ€. No one argues that agriculture is not an economical activity in the rich world. It may be the underlying truth that the comparative advantage of impoverished nations still lies in the production of agricultural items. But perceptions of comparative advantage are shaped by affluent nations and classes, who have the resources to maneuver policy levers in international economic institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO.
As a result, American agribusinesses have a free run at Indian agricultural markets, introducing to a labor-rich country a resource and capital-intensive agricultural technology at odds with its production conditions. If Indian agriculture gets industrialized in the coming years at the hands of global agribusinesses our people will reap the bitter harvest of a â€œdisposable labor forceâ€, at a time when 10 million young Indians are being added to the working population of the country. The readily foreseeable outcome will be unprecedented political and social tension.
Agriculture has been made even more uneconomical because of the collapse of public investment in rural infrastructure after the inception of the reforms in 1991. Irrigation falls severely short of requirements, especially in dryland agriculture. Power supply for agricultural operations comes at a premium. Credit for investment purposes is hard to come by, when cheap loans are readily available in the cities for housing, cars and other personal uses. In fact, with the introduction of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and favored industrial projects in the countryside, a growing fraction of rural infrastructure â€“ meant for agricultural uses â€“ is effectively being handed over for non-agricultural purposes and for artificially inflating real-estate values.
Simply because it obtains huge tax breaks, subsidies and other incentives, no one argues that IT is uneconomical in the country. Nor are so many other industries which receive sops from the state. But agriculture receives step-treatment. Well-informed commentators make gratuitous comparisons between the rates of growth in services and industry on the one hand and agriculture on the other when they ought to know better: agriculture is growing from an already large base (and thus cannot grow so fast) and is regulated by the weather cycles and natural limits: you cannot run three 8-hour shifts every day of the year to accelerate the rate of production, as you can in industry. And nor does one have to wait patiently for harvests in industry whose timing is determined ultimately by nature, and not by working humanity.
Thanks to the cruel and foolish neglect and abuse of agriculture (on which much has been written elsewhere), exemplified by trade policy concessions (to the WTO) that have exposed our farmers to subsidized international competition from the West without creating any sort of safety net for them, over 100,000 peasants (according to the Union Agriculture Ministerâ€™s speech to parliament last March) have committed debt-driven suicides across some of the traditional granaries of India, such as Punjab. Moreover, thanks to the collapse of rural purchasing power in the IMF-led deflationary environment that was created during the 1990s (NSS data for 2002/03 reveal that income was less than expenditure for 96% of farming households), food-grain absorption per capita has declined to levels that prevailed before Indian independence, bringing back fears of possible famines in the future â€“ even in a democracy.
Finally, an even more sobering observation: thanks to the increasingly external orientation forced upon the agrarian economy (increasingly growing cash crops, flowers and vegetables for export) even the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar admits that the food security of the country is now under serious threat, even as a dark shadow appears over wheat imports from countries like Australia â€“ suffering their worst drought in a millennia, thanks to global climate change.
What kind of industrialization does India need?
The question is not whether industrialization is a good idea. Rather, the issues relate to the kind and rate of industrialization, where to locate industry and for whom?
If our policy-making elites in New Delhi and in the state capitals (not to forget the invisible hand in Washington) were genuinely thinking of sustainable development for the mass of poor Indians â€“ and not merely concerned with enriching the already rich and powerful classes of this world â€“ they would be outlawing certain environmentally suicidal forms of industrialization, locating industrial activities far from inhabited and agricultural areas, encouraging investments in labor-intensive, light (possibly low-tech) industries, controlling and moderating the rate of expansion of industry to keep pace with the regeneration of (renewable) resources, protecting our markets from dumping by Western businesses (especially agribusinesses) and investing heavily in health, primary education, the vocational training of our youth.
They would not be offering financial support to leading capitalists acquiring large firms abroad, far from letting them fly around in fighter jets meant presumably for the public task of defending the country.
The fact that the economic policies of Indian governments both at the centre and at the states reflects little of all these desiderata reveals their treacherous priorities â€“ in which accretion to the wealth and power of the already powerful classes appears to be the reigning concern. Industrialization as if people mattered would be discernibly inclusive, in stark contrast to the violent exclusiveness which marks the reigning pattern.
Just how socially sustainable and consistent with a democratic political ethos such an approach to economic policy is, and how far the wounded elephant that Indian agriculture is today will accept its fate without striking back, only the future will tell. If â€œIndia Shiningâ€ was smashed by the results of the 2004 general elections, â€œIndia Poisedâ€ may be headed for a more violent nemesis.
Meanwhile, we must all agree to consume, obey and shut up, in keeping with the expectations of a cramped democracy under siege from corporate totalitarianism.
Aseem Shrivastava is an independent writer. He can be reached at [email protected].