Development is a word that is being used by everyone, though each one may mean something quite different when they use the same word. The corporate houses are moving into tribal areas in the name of development. Huge dams that are destroying many villages are being constructed in the name of development. Politicians are fighting elections in the name of development. Development has become a word that is used and abused for everything. I have been travelling with a team of activists from the Southern tip of India to the Himalayas since 2nd of October, 2011. I have travelled thousands of kilometers in this yatra so far meeting tens of thousands of people in order to find out what is happening in their life. I have been shocked to find that the one thing that has really developed very well in India is poverty. Every nook and corner of India is filled with poor people. In villages or in the cities people are lining up with their petitions. Homeless people who are living on government land or the land of rich people and fighting poverty are living in constant fear of their shelter getting demolished at any moment. The coal mines have displaced large number of villages and the industries have forced many villagers to flee because of unbearable pollution. People who are forced out of villages are finally ending up in cities and slums. Anyone who is interested into do a study on development should also find time to look at this picture or how poverty can be developed in the name of development. People who criticize or question this development model are straight away dismissed as anti-development groups or anti-national groups. Those who are preaching the development model of the day which is creating wealth for top 5% and misery for more than 50 %, are only speaking about the top 5 % but not about the 50 %. They continue to make people believe that this model of development is sustainable and this is the way the world should develop.
There are many research institutions and economic experts who are constantly promoting this model of development that is creating more poverty, migration and violence. How to challenge this design is worrying more and more social activists across the globe. Capital, technology and elected or imposed governance are all one when it comes to protecting this model of development. This model has not only developed poverty but also created conflict and violence of a scale that it is difficult to control or contain. In every state that we visited in the last 6 months, we have seen thousands of people struggling for survival as they are losing their land and livelihood resources to this process of development. Farmers are committing suicide and many are taking to violence. Developing wealth for few is basically a story of developing poverty for millions. ‘Developing poverty’ is a new phrase that I am trying to introduce through this article.
We were in Jharkhand for a month visiting struggle after struggle. Some of the struggles have succeeded while others continue to strive against an insensitive system. Large areas of Jharkhand are now occupied by private armies. In order to counter these private armies, the government of Jharkhand has created paramilitary forces. Unfortunately, many of the paramilitary groups carry a very ugly name to identify themselves. One group is called “cobra”, and the other one is “scorpion”. There are also groups called “green hunt”. The local people don’t even understand the meaning of these names. ‘Why do they call themselves with such unfriendly sounding brutal names’, asked one villager? ‘Why do they want to identify themselves with names that are so unfamiliar for local people,’ asked another one? The reason is very clear: they want to scare the local people by sounding terrible. By becoming unfriendly to local people, the paramilitary forces have distanced themselves from the local people, and as a result the local people refuse to support them. Even in the act of selecting a good name for the paramilitary forces–one can understand that there is an in-built resistance when it comes to moving closer to people or acting according to the aspiration of the local people.
Poverty can be at many levels. Generally, we speak about economic poverty but we fail to talk enough about poverty in terms of ideas. Majid Rahnema, an Iranian writer has very beautifully described the poverty of mind, poverty of culture, etc. We tend to classify people as poor only when they are economically poor even though they are very rich in many other ways. Adivasis of Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand are probably economically poor but are very rich when it comes to culture and their relationship with the nature. The economic poverty that they are facing today is the poverty created by developmental projects. The word development is always presented as a positive thing. As a result even poor people who lost everything because of developmental projects are asking for development. They fail to realize that it was in the name of development that their land was taken, their water sources were polluted and they got displaced. The net result of all those developmental programs is that they have contributed to developing poverty to such a scale that has forced people into slums, or farmers to commit suicide or young people to take guns.
During my travel in Assam I was in an area called Patapur. Patapur was a prosperous area some 10 years back. The people of Patapur were generally happy because their land was very fertile and they would generally have a good crop. They failed to notice that there was a developmental project happening upstream in the river. A hydroelectric project was being developed. One night, because of too much water in the dam, the company decided to open the outlet, and it brought disaster to Patapur area. In addition to a large number of people and cattle dying, much of their land was buried under piles of sand. In spite of all their efforts during last 10 years, they have not been able to bring back their prosperity. All it takes is one dam to bring about so much poverty in such a large area. Two years back, I was with a number of colleagues in Sahasra, an area close to theNepal border, carrying out relief work and organizing people against big dam project. Their lands were also buried because a dam on river Kosi had collapsed washing away hundreds of villages. A lkarge area of fertile land was under piles of sand. Cattle wealth was completely destroyed. One dam on Koshi has contributed in a big way to develop poverty for farmers and farm laborers. Those affected by this dam will never be able to come out of their poverty.
Again in Assam, one can hear the same story if you travel through Demanji and Lakimpur districts. People are living in constant fear of becoming poor because of the development up stream. They nearly dislike this word development; they have understood the conspiracy behind this word. I am told that their forefathers asked for dams thinking that those dams will control the flow of water and they can grow in prosperity. Now they understand the real meaning of development, as they have experienced it again and again.
I remember in the 80s we used to debate about people-centered development as opposed to profit-centered development. Some people didn’t even like this term people-centered, they wanted the developmental process to be inclusive of nature. At the moment what is happening is that handful of people are making profits at the cost of large number of people and nature itself. In a market-centric world, this negative process is called development and people are selling and buying this idea day and night. Anybody who is opposing this idea will be called anti-developmentalist and becoming anti-development is more like a crime. People who are opposed to this development need to explain again and again what they mean by development. It is not the abuser who is explaining but it is the defender of people and their rights who is supposed to explain his/her position again and again.
A rough estimate shows that about 600 million people have become victims of development in India directly. About 92 000 villages and people living in these villages have disappeared to give space to development. More than 2,00,000 farmers have committed suicide due to the developmental policies that affected their life negatively. In more than 120 districts young people are opting to use violence as they really have no idea how to counter this process called development. Imagine how frustrating and aggressive development has become. In spite of all this happening across the globe, we might ask why are the economists and intellectuals not challenging this concept of development or reopening it for a discussion?
I began my journey from Koodankulam, I met the fisher folks who are fighting against this top-down model of development. In Jaitapur of Maharashtra, about 50 000 fishermen are going to lose their livelihood because of one nuclear plant. We are told that because of the shortage of power multinational companies are not coming to India to invest their money. So there is a need for nuclear plants, thermal power plants and hydro-electric power projects. Yet experience shows that the power generated by destroying nature and displacing people will never be available to the ordinary people of India. Did anybody discuss what is happening to all the power that is already generated? Why are the people living in darkness whereas companies and factories are using huge amounts of power in the name of industrialization? It is no secret that part of the electricity generated gets stolen again by the powerful lobbies. I have also seen many SEZ in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The government is forcing the farmers to turn over their land for development. In every project that I visited farmers stood up with folded hands pleading that they don’t want to sell their land but they are left with no other option. The state is buying land from the farmers for a cheaper price and then reselling it to the companies for a very high price, and then the companies are transacting the same land to make even more profit. Land has become a business. Those with money and power continue to buy and sell everything around them in the name of development.
A rough estimate shows that for every 10 jobs created by factories, the livelihoods of 100 self employed farmers, fisher folks, Adivasis, Nomads are destroyed. In order to justify this action they have classified self employment as unskilled labor. What can be worse than calling producers of food unskilled laborers? Ultimately all our efforts are in order to put some food on the table. Who can be more skilled than those who produce food for us? Who are these development experts whose notion about skilled and unskilled is so limited? How can working on a computer be more important and more skilled than producing food in the field? There are many questions that need to be raised about this development model that is systematically producing not only economic poverty but also poverty of ideas and imagination. I also visited several mining projects across Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand. People are extremely agitated. They are angry that they are losing their land and livelihood resources. They are also going to lose their language, dialects and culture. They want to hold on to their land and nature even if it is far away from the so-called national highways. Across India, I have witnessed people coming together to oppose this notion of development that is only developing deprivation, marginalization and poverty. It is time to rethink about the destruction that this development has brought about and be ready to rework on it. An honest effort in this direction will receive appreciation from millions of people. Is there anybody listening ?