UPA-2's litmus test at year one
IT'S no coincidence that the first anniversary of the United Progressive Alliance's return to power should witness nationwide protests against its industrialisation policies, which are massively dispossessing vulnerable people.
Last week, large-scale demonstrations were organised against South Korea-based steel company Posco's land acquisition plan in Orissa's Jagatsinghpur district. The police imposed prohibitory orders, opened fire, injured over 100 protesters, arrested a Communist Party of India MP and burnt down homes in nearby villages.
Orissa's non-UPA government is pushing the Posco project even more ardently than the UPA. The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti leaders aren't extremists. The CPI has sustained the agitation for years. The Samiti has been on a dharna near Paradip port since January 26. Recently, even the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party joined/backed the protests.
The Orissa police are brutal towards protesters. They killed 14 people agitating against a Tata Steel plant at Kalinganagar in Jajpur in 2006. They indefensibly used landmines -- against civilians. On May 12, they again opened fire at Kalinganagar, killing one. As the Orissa events unfolded, Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district saw a powerful march through several villages against another destructive UPA-promoted project -- a nuclear park, with six 1,600 MW reactors, to be built at Jaitapur by Areva, a French company.
Areva is currently being investigated by French, Finnish and British nuclear regulators for the safety of a "new-generation" reactor it's building in Finland. Construction is late by three-and-a-half years and over budget by 60 percent.
This is the first reactor contracted in Western Europe after Chernobyl (1986). If it fails or is abandoned, it could sound the death-knell of the nuclear industry in the developed world. Yet, oblivious of this, and of the generic problems with nuclear power, the government is acquiring land for the Jaitapur project under the emergency provisions of the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894. This when no contract has been signed, no project report prepared, and no environmental clearance granted to the site.
The people oppose the Jaitapur reactors because they'll routinely emit radioactivity and could even undergo a catastrophic accident. People have torn up the "compensation" cheques they received for loss of land and livelihoods. The government's plan to build nuclear parks at other coastal sites -- including Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal -- will spark nasty confrontations.
This raises grave questions: does local democracy, for which the UPA claims credit, going back to Rajiv Gandhi's 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, mean anything? Should the government force a costly, high-risk, exhausted energy technology upon unwilling people? Millions have also questioned Special Economic Zones, petrochemicals investment regions, and projects in extractive industries like coal, bauxite, metallurgy and cement.
The government and promoters cannot convince the people that their fears of livelihood destruction and inadequate compensation are imaginary. "Development" projects in independent India have displaced 45 million, the population of more than three-fourths of the world's nations, with little rehabilitation.
Even the Supreme Court has deplored such violations of the right to life, questioned land acquisition for purposes unrelated to public welfare, and asked that the Land Acquisition Act be revisited. "Why subject such a large number of citizens to such traumatic experience?" Under way in India is a process of "enclosure" of land, similar to that in Europe three centuries ago, but much more compressed. This follows a prolonged agrarian crisis, a 10kg decrease in monthly per-capita food grains consumption over three decades, and the suicides of 200,000 farmers since 1997 -- unprecedented anywhere.
Small-holder agriculture has become unviable in two-thirds of India. Farm incomes haven't kept pace with rising input costs. Agriculture has become more energy, water and capital-intensive. It suffers from falling public investment, monoculture, high water use and rising imports. It has also run up against major ecological barriers.
Instead of addressing these issues, and promoting equitable growth and defending vulnerable livelihoods (promises that won it the 2009 election), the UPA is blindly pursuing destructive neoliberal approaches. These will undermine the subsistence of underprivileged people, further distort growth processes, aggravate inequalities and disparities, and thus sharpen social conflict. This is the surest recipe for breeding Naxalism where it doesn't exist, and of exacerbating social divisions.
Regrettably, few UPA leaders demand a radical policy review and correction. Congressmen such as Messrs. Mani Shankar Aiyar and Digvijay Singh, and sometimes Mr. Rahul Gandhi, express concern about persistent destitution, rising inequalities, and the state's loss of popular credibility.
Ms. Sonia Gandhi has decided to re-establish the National Advisory Council, which might produce good ideas on food security and healthcare. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) too has had a positive impact.
However, this isn't enough. People like Mr. Gandhi want vigorous GDP growth, which will boost state revenues, which can fund schemes like the NREGA. This approach is flawed because it uses the fruits of rapid GDP growth to redress problems made worse by the growth process itself. The approach disregards neoliberalism's inequality-enhancing nature and its sleazy roots and ignores the double injustice of further dispossessing the already deprived. The solution is to radically change the content and direction of growth.
Growth, or rather development, must become participatory, inclusive and equitable. Sustainable development must be need-based, green and gender-just. It must never fail to defend the interests of the poorest of the poor -- not even temporarily.
The Congress leadership must debate these issues. Or, it will drift into the same policy frame that eventually brought about the BJP's exit from power. Regrettably, this decade is probably the first time that the Congress is in power without a Left-of-centre pressure group or think-tank within, like the Nehru Forum or the Young Turks, which is sorely needed.
This is a void that far exceeds the government's political management errors, which have attracted all the media attention as UPA-2 completes its first year in power. The NAC could bring progressive intellectual inputs into policy-making if Ms. Gandhi broadens its membership and shifts its ideological centre of gravity Leftwards.
Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.
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