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Tata, bye-bye, and good riddance?

As the Tatas battle on in Singur in the wake of protests against their Nano car plant, industrial houses should take comfort in the fact that the Indian government is solidly behind them. It’s just those ignorant farmers, fisherfolk and tribals who don’t know what’s good for them who’re standing in the way of a shiny new India, says Ashish Kothari

TATA Singur Plant

The poor Tatas. This icon of India Gleaming seems not to be welcomed by some misguided sections of India Scrubbing. Farmers in Singur, West Bengal, have blocked entry to the factory that could have produced the Nano: the miracle car that occupies the dreams of a few lakh Indians as much as a full meal occupies the dreams of a few million of their fellow citizens. But at least the first of these dreams was within reach, till some tillers came in the way. Come on guys (and at least one vocal gal), surely you don’t want to destroy the hopes of all those construction companies that were hoping to build a few hundred more flyovers to accommodate tens of thousands of new cars?

Alas, the Bengali farmers have counterparts elsewhere too. In Bastar, several thousand of them have protested the takeover of their lands for a Tata Steel plant, and many more will probably take to the streets when they learn that the same company is planning to mine iron ore where they now live. These poor folks simply don’t understand that we need steel to build those gleaming new skyscrapers and malls in our world-class cities.

If it is any consolation, the Tatas are not being singled out for this treatment. Vedanta Corporation, respected in the stock markets of the United Kingdom where it is listed, thought it would bring ‘progress’ to the backward region of Orissa. It proposed an aluminium plant, and mining of bauxite to feed it, in a heavily forested, tribal-inhabited part of the state. Close on its heels came the Korean multinational giant POSCO (okay, so it does not have any Indian connections, unlike Vedanta whose head honcho is one Anil Agarwal, but so what, the Koreans too want to help India become shinier), with an investment of Rs 50,000 crore for a steel plant and captive port. And yet, some tribals and their NGO friends are standing in the way, pointing to a violation of India’s Constitution (does anyone in 21st century India still refer to this document?) which promises protection to them and their way of life. Some villages have even declared that the forests around them are ‘community forests’ under the Forest Rights Act, and that no one could take them away without their consent. And the Dongariya Kondhs have repeatedly invoked the sacredness of the hill that Vedanta wants to mine.

Surely someone needs to tell these people that we don’t really need forests; they can be seen in nice movies or replaced by genetically modified trees that will grow really, really fast. And a sacred hill? Oh come now, it has no mega-temple built on it! How can it be sacrosanct? Have these tribals not heard that even the Supreme Court judges, in their infinite wisdom, have allowed Vedanta and POSCO to set up shop in India? Now if it were the Tirupati temple under which minerals were found, perhaps they would have taken a different view. That’s probably because they have gone and prayed there, or in some other such holy concreteness (actually now they need not go far -- a huge temple complex, Akshardham, has come up on the Yamuna riverbed in Delhi… riverbeds, after all, are such a waste of land, no?). One cannot expect them to trek up a remote hill in some godforsaken part of the country to understand the concerns of some long-forgotten tribe!

But did you know that the esteemed judges of the Supreme Court are also very patriotic? They actually did not allow Vedanta to proceed with its plans; instead, they insisted that its Indian subsidiary, Sterlite, take up operations. That this Indian subsidiary is fully controlled by its British parent matters not… it’s the face that counts, no?

Orissa seems to be getting really special treatment, much to the envy of other states. Not only Vedanta and POSCO, the Tatas too are there, proposing a steel plant at Kalinganagar where some seriously anti-national tribals got shot dead whilst protesting the takeover of their land. And there’s a massive new port on the Orissa coast, at Dhamra. Fisherfolk who continue to live off the sea (did someone not tell them that this is an anachronism in India Gleaming?) will be forced to shift to other vocations. But that’s okay. After all, children do not always know what’s best for them.

Nor do animals. So, several hundred thousand olive ridley sea turtles that have been coming to nest on the beaches near Dhamra, perhaps for several million years, in one of nature’s mightiest spectacles, will also have to move. The Tatas are planning to build shiny steel-and-glass nurseries for them so they can lay their eggs and have their hatchlings come out in air-conditioned comfort rather than the messy beaches where they have to dig into sticky sand. Okay, just kidding! What the Tatas are planning if the nesting beaches are abandoned due to the port’s activities is a secret… one can be sure the solution will be intensely patriotic.

Talking about patriotism, some doubting Thomases think that Coca-Cola should not have been allowed to take over half of India’s desi soft drinks (the other half went to Pepsi). But think of this… Coke retained most of the Indian names. Can anything be more patriotic? And it even invented an Indian version of Marie Antoinette’s infamous “if you don’t have bread, eat cake” statement (apparently never said by her, but that’s another issue), by telling villagers around all their bottling plants that if they did not have water they should drink Coke. Why did they do that? Because their factories in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan severely depleted the groundwater and made surface water undrinkable due to effluents. It was Coke’s way of taking the simple villagers straight into the modern era, where all liquids are drunk from bottles and cans. We ought to be grateful to them. Instead, those simple villagers rebelled and have caused three of the plants to shut down, with another two or three facing a similar fate. Some people just don’t get it!

Protests by farmers and fisherfolk and NGOs notwithstanding, all these industrial houses should take comfort in the fact that the Indian government is solidly behind them. Rather, under them, propping them up. It has learnt well from history, that economic growth can only take place through the process of colonisation. Hence, its promises to all kinds of modern avatars the favours that rulers extended to the East India Company, 400 years ago. One such is the Special Economic Zones (what some more seriously misguided people -- they must be leftist extremists -- call Special Exploitation Zones). These are enclaves within India that the commerce ministry once described as “deemed foreign territories”, where several Indian laws would not apply. Over 500 SEZs, covering over 62,000 hectares, have already been approved since 2000. Some are well over 1,000 hectares each, and most are on agricultural, coastal, or grazing lands. Amongst the beneficiaries is Reliance, which has found innovative ways of getting around the bothersome bureaucracy surrounding industrial projects.

Strangely, SEZs have enraged some people who obviously don’t see the merit of turning parts of India into firangland. So much so that in Goa the state government had to scrap three SEZs that were already granted permission -- feni folks, these Goans. A number of SEZs in other states have not been able to proceed due to opposition from farmers and NGOs. Weird indeed… how can anyone stand in the way of India’s re-colonisation, especially when this time it is at least partly by desis themselves? These folks don’t understand that this way we can even pretend to be colonising foreign lands!

A quick journey back in time may be helpful here. This is what Emperor Jehangir wrote to King James I, in the early-17th century:

“Upon which assurance of your royal love I have given my general command to all the kingdoms and ports of my dominions to receive all the merchants of the English nation as the subjects of my friend; that in what place soever they choose to live, they may have free liberty without any restraint; and at what port soever they shall arrive, that neither Portugal nor any other shall dare to molest their quiet; and in what city soever they shall have residence, I have commanded all my governors and captains to give them freedom answerable to their own desires; to sell, buy, and to transport into their country at their pleasure.”

Sounds uncannily like what the Government of India is telling corporations now, except that they are not only from foreign lands but are our own desi versions also. I guess some opponents of this new brand of colonisation may be forgiven for suspecting that the following, also written by Jehangir to James, could have its modern versions:

“For confirmation of our love and friendship, I desire your Majesty to command your merchants to bring in their ships of all sorts of rarities and rich goods fit for my palace; and that you be pleased to send me your royal letters by every opportunity, that I may rejoice in your health and prosperous affairs; that our friendship may be interchanged and eternal.”

Another of the Indian government’s gestures to help the new colonisers remain “healthy and prosperous” is the dilution of those pesky environmental laws that block the country’s marble-paved path to double-digit growth. What, after all, would be the point of throwing out fisherfolk if the areas they vacate can’t be taken over by 5-star hotels and water sports, thanks to some archaic Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification? And why retain 21% of India under forests when people who crave sitting under a tree can easily do so with virtual reality headsets? And, horror of horrors, why make industrialists go through the ignominy of facing hostile questions in a public hearing and then do innumerable rounds trying to get environmental clearance?

And so the government has helpfully amended the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification to make it much easier to get permission, and to do away with public hearings for some kinds or scales of projects. It has also proposed amending the CRZ notification to allow states to declare whatever they feel is ecologically sensitive, of course carefully avoiding stretches that hoteliers and industrialists require. And it has instructed the Ministry of Environment and Forests to give rapid clearances for the diversion of forests. Very effective instructions, these: in the last six years alone 3.7 lakh hectares of forest land have been diverted for mining, industry, defence projects, etc. This is a third of the total forest land diversion since 1980, when some seriously misguided elements within the government managed to slip in the Forest Conservation Act, requiring central government clearance for use of forest land. As the pace of economic globalisation increases, decision-makers get more and more convinced that forests are a luxury we can ill-afford.

So does our judiciary. Close on the heels of allowing Vedanta and POSCO in Orissa, the Supreme Court allowed diamond mining inside the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. (Interesting that all these came in August, the month of India’s independence from British colonial rule. Interesting also that not so long ago, the same court ruled that no “trees, grasses, etc” can be removed from protected areas. But then that was aimed at stopping the primitive practices of local tribals.) But the court was a bit mean. It imposed a fee on the project proponent, the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC); NMDC will have to deposit 5% of its capital cost for compensatory afforestation, and work under the watch of an environmental impact monitoring committee. With all that money, fast-growing genetically engineered species can be imported to replace the several-million-year-old forests that the mines may ‘divert’. Perhaps the committee will also recommend that the latest anti-noise Bose headphones be bought for all tigers in the reserve so they are not disturbed by the mining explosions!

So now it’s only those silly farmers and fisherfolk and environmental NGOs that have to be dealt with. That too not all of them. The sensible cultivators quietly accept cash compensation and leave, realising that life as an underpaid labourer in a toxic factory that will likely kill them before they are 50 is so much better than growing one’s own food. And, miraculously, there are some sensible NGOs too that have helpfully set up office within a few kilometres of the Ministry of Environment and Forests so they can get there quickly when any consultancy comes up. One must appreciate their concern for climate change; with such a location their carbon footprint to go to their favourite sites in the corridors of power is quite low. And now with crores of rupees coming, as companies are made to cough up money to compensate for forest land diversion or people’s displacement, I’m sure a few more NGOs will find conveniently located offices close to central or state government headquarters.

But that still leaves quite a few farmers, fisherfolk and NGOs who are playing spoilsport. Guided by outmoded ideals of justice and fair play, these folks need to be treated differently. If enticements don’t work, threaten them. If this too does not work, imprison them. Binayak Sen, a doctor raising questions about the policies of the Chhattisgarh government vis-à-vis the state’s tribals, has now been in prison for well over a year. Serves him right; such questions can only be asked by extremist elements (did someone mention Mohandas Gandhi’s challenge to colonial policies? He too must have been a Naxalite!). And if this too does not work, shoot them, as had to be done in Kalinganagar. Progress, after all, has to be ‘at any cost’, especially if the cost is to be borne by those ignorant masses who just don’t get it.

But you say this is a violation of basic human rights as guaranteed by our Constitution? Possibly. That’s why, I hear, the Indian government under advice from the World Bank and World Economic Forum, is planning to replace it with a much simpler one that allows citizens only those rights that corporations consider acceptable. Okay, just kidding! Or maybe not?

InfoChange News & Features, September 2008