During his interaction with editors on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked that “poverty is the biggest polluter” and India needs to achieve a balance between environment and development-industrialisation. While his observations were spot on, achieving that ‘balance’ is proving to be a formidable task for the Indian State, despite all its human and financial resources. Across the country, thousands of disenfranchised are up in arms against what state and central governments believe to be ‘development projects’ and related issues of land acquisition and rehabilitation.
To farmers, who form the bulk of these protestors, land is far more economically essential than a job of a petty unskilled worker in a factory. While the former can hope to assure them and the generation that follows a chance of earning a decent livelihood, the factory worker will only become a substitute for one who loses his land. Their fears are not unjustified as successive governments have had abysmally poor track records when it comes to rehabilitation. According to reports, even people who lost their land during the building of the Hirakud dam in 1957 in Orissa — ostensibly in the name of the greater common good — are yet to be rehabilitated. So it is not also surprising that those who had been in favour of the Posco (Pohang Steel Company) project, have now joined the ‘anti-Posco’ camp in Orissa.
While people have been protesting against the proposed steel plant since 2005 when a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Orissa government and Posco-India, it is only now that the ‘pro-Posco’ farmers are articulating their fear: the paltry compensation amount they received will run out very soon and then they would have to fend for themselves. The joining of the two forces in Orissa will only give the anti-Posco fight more ammunition. Recently, anti-land acquisition protestors in Uttar Pradesh had similar fears and demanded better compensation from the government.
Instead of battling out the environment vs development debate on the streets, the government should ensure that the rehabilitation package is adequate and timely. The efforts should refocus on how to sell their idea in a more effective manner not just in words but in action too. If that means taking a relook at certain projects that have been cleared, readjusting the foreign direct investment targets and reworking a project (adding a few riders don’t convince people), so be it.