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Into thin air

The popular movements breaking out in different parts of India against developmental projects demonstrate certain features peculiar to the post-reforms era of neo-liberalism, writes Sumanta Banerjee.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2007 20:35 IST

There was always a sting in the tail of economic growth — whether in post-Industrial Revolution Europe or the Soviet Union and China. Expropriation of natural resources like agricultural land, forestry, tanks and rivers, at the cost of certain sections like poor peasants, traditional artisan communities, tribals and forest dwellers who owned these resources, contributed in a large measure to the growth. An intensification of the same trend is to be seen in the latest, neo-liberal phase of development in India today. But to their chagrin, the policy makers as well as their ideological touts are finding it difficult to replicate the old model in 21st century India, facing popular resistance from the local people — against a proposed SEZ in Nandigram in Left-ruled West Bengal; a Tata steel project in Kalinganagar in Orissa ruled by a Right-of-the-Centre coalition; a mega hydel project in Kinnaur in Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh; the setting up of nuclear reactors in Koodankulam in DMK-ruled Tamil Nadu. These are only a few examples of the growing outbursts of popular discontent against developmental programmes undertaken by state governments. The anti-Narmada dam movement was their precursor.

The ‘fundoos’ of neo-liberalism, however, are not willing to attach any importance to the basic causes of these militant demonstrations, and reiterate instead that “collective social unrest isn’t driven by economic reasons..(but) by social and political reasons…based on caste/religion”. Asking us to wait for the trickle-down effects that would follow soon to benefit those who are being thrown out from their hearth and home, they advise the government to treat “deprivation as an individual issue” and dismiss the present demonstrations of protest as isolated hiccups of “individual discontentment” (Bibek Debroy in Indian Express, June 12, 2007) and disparage their leaders as anti-industrial ‘jholawalas’. But the cavalier manner in which they tend to disregard the human tragedy of massive displacement, loss of income and environmental pollution, indicates the abyss of moral insensitivity and social irresponsibility to which the corporate sector and the pedlars of its ideology have sunk in the present era of neo-liberalism — compared to the somewhat accommodating policies that their predecessors followed, before the so-called ‘reforms’ came into force.

Let me give an example. Arijit Banerjee, who was an executive vice president in the Haldia Petro-Chemicals Limited in the early 1990s, told me how his company in those days set about acquiring land and planning rehabilitation for those who were to be ousted from the proposed site of its factory (in the same West Bengal district where Nandigram is situated). Describing the differences between then and now, he narrated his own experiences. “My first task,” he said, “was to talk to the villagers. I hired a car, fixed a mike atop and visited every village addressing the farmers whose plots were to be acquired.” While explaining to them the importance of the petro-chemical complex for the country’s overall economic growth, and assuring employment in it for the local people, he made it clear to them that the factory would deal with hazardous chemicals — albeit under adequate protective measures.

Inviting the village youth to join the venture, he introduced his company: “We are snake-charmers. If you want to play with snakes, join us.” Some among the villagers dared and opted for jobs in the factory, some accepted compensation in cash, some were given agricultural plots in different areas, and others were accommodated in a special rehabilitation colony, which has today become a thriving township.

That the takeover of land for the Haldia petro-chemical complex (a public-private partnership) in the early 1990s did not create a Nandigram-type explosion could be attributed to a number of factors. Arijit Banerjee tells me that the then Chief Secretary of the West Bengal government (even then run by the Left Front) was sensitive to the needs of the oustees, which helped him overcome the bureaucratic hurdles in rehabilitating them. The solicitude and tactfulness demonstrated then both by the corporate sector and the government, according to Banerjee, are missing today.

A Leftist political activist and film-maker, Sumit Chowdhury, who is involved in the present-day anti-SEZ agitation in Nandigram has another explanation for the difference in the popular response then and now. “At that time, the affected villagers might have accepted whatever compensation that was given to them for the loss of their lands. Today, increasingly aware of the market value of the lands and their democratic rights, they are refusing to be taken for granted, and are spontaneously resisting the acquisition of their lands,” he says. Commenting on the political contours of such resistance, Chowdhury says: “It cannot remain confined to a struggle for higher compensation in cash, or alternative plots of land, or promise of jobs in the proposed SEZs. We are challenging the basic concept of the neo-liberal model of development.”

The popular movements that are breaking out in different parts of India against industrial and developmental projects demonstrate certain features which are peculiar to the post-reforms era of neo-liberalism. These challenge the stereotypes of conventional political party-led agitations with which we had grown up.

First, although most of these movements began as spontaneous protests by people of a cluster of villages over specific and immediate problems, they stem from a common source — the prevailing model of uneven growth that leads to dispossession of their land and destruction of their occupations.

Second, these movements have a loose structure that brings together the disaffected from different classes and communities, which provides them with a wider base of support in their respective areas.

Third, they have given birth to a new generation of social and political activists who have moved into the vacuum created by the failures and defeats of the old Left. They are usually from among the locals and approximate to what Antonio Gramsci defined as ‘organic intellectuals’. These grassroots activists are more canny, and freed from fixed political loyalties, they have no hesitation in fighting any political party in power.

While defining a new form of direct democracy and decentralisation of leadership, these movements, however, still lack a clear ideological vision and an alternative concept of development. Negative opposition to the mega-projects or SEZs cannot take them beyond the elementary demands for the removal of such projects from their farms, or bargaining for increased compensation in lieu. Further, such limited demands help the same old opportunist political parties to hijack their movements — like the Trinamool Congress in Nandigram, or the CPI(M) in Orissa’s anti-Posco movement. They may end up as mere pressure groups within a political system dominated by these parties and politicians.

It is also to be seen whether such loosely structured movements can hold together for long without coordination among themselves at the national level. But ultimately, their success will depend on their challenging the prevailing neo-liberal growth model with an alternative functional model of development — a model that can ensure equitable distribution of income and social justice. It can evolve from dialogues and cooperation between the conscientious members of the old Left and the new generation of activists of these movements.

Sumanta Banerjee is the author of In the Wake of Naxalbari. A History of the Naxalite Movement