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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 22

Aao Ham Sangharsh Karen

Friday 23 May 2008, by Sudhir Vombatkere


The “Sangharsh Dharna” held from April 28-30, 2008 at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi was in opposition to the general trend and large portions of the Land Acquisition Amendment Bill 2007, and the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill, 2007. These Bills, as presently drafted, do not merely keep the field open for corporate growth at the expense of the lands and livelihoods of adivasi and rural people but in fact, once enacted, will be a cruel handle to force more poor people into destitution. These Bills also affect the urban poor. The R & R Bill asserts that displacement is an inherent part of development, and fails to recognise the human rights of people displaced forcibly, while the LA Bill is even worse than the British LA Act 1894, in that it quietly includes private purpose within the ambit of public purpose by changing the definition of “public purpose” and “person” to include corporations. Corporate interests have had a hand in the drafting of both Bills, obviously by “educating” some bureaucrats and politicians much like the Enron VP, Rebecca Mark, “educated” some politicians and bureau-crats of Maharashtra regarding the infamous Dabhol Power Project.

But regarding projects, there is the flip side in the “practical wisdom” offered by some well-heeled people that “if there has to be progress then somebody has to pay for it”, and that “you cannot make an egg omelette without breaking an egg”, and that “of course people who are displaced should be properly rehabilitated”. Let us examine these pearls of wisdom in the light of some ethical and practical considerations that are being voiced loudly by people who have already suffered and others threatened by forcible displacement. For a start, the pearl about “progress” fails to define progress and fails to clarify who progresses and who pays for that progress. As for breaking an egg to make an omelette, a lot depends upon the ethics of breaking the egg (destroying lives and livelihoods), upon the necessity of preparing an omelette (justification for the project) and upon who gets to eat the omelette (the beneficiaries of the project). Finally, the kind thought—after the egg is broken and the omelette is eaten—that such people should be rehabilitated. A snapshot of the track record of displacement since 1950 shows the value of that word “should”. The numbers of people forcibly displaced due to small, medium, large and mega projects are estimated at about 47 million. More than half of them have received no compensation whatever, those who have been granted niggardly compensation have not received it or received only a part of it thanks to corrupt government machinery, many have been displaced more than once, over 40 per cent of them are adivasi when they comprise only about 20 per cent of the population, and all of them (yes, all of them) are destitute, economically broken, socially fragmented, individually devastated. Some passing thoughts: Is it at all possible that these people and their progeny would be favourably disposed towards governments controlled by corporations and those sections of society that favour such projects? Would these people and their progeny remain peacefully silent forever in favour of “national progress”, “public interest”, and “economic growth”? Recently (The Times of India, New Delhi, April 28, 2008, page 1), a high-power committee set up in 2006 by the Planning Commission ascribed growing Naxalism to people’s discontent and failure of governance, and showed a direct relationship between extremism and poverty. It also recommended that “public purpose” for land acquisition should be limited to national security and public welfare—clearly a call to re-visit the LA Bill 2007.

But all that apart, let us revert to the dharna. So, who were the people at the dharna and what was the mood, what was the word, what was the body language? Briefly, the mood and the body language in the prematurely stifling heat of end-April was certainly one of people with their backs to the wall, of determination to fight to the last, of militancy as yet far from Naxalism. Hearteningly, over half of those assembled were women, justifying the slogan, “Mahila shakti ayi hai—Nayi roshni layi hai”. This writer recorded statements of many people at the “jan sunwayi” organised on April 29.

NEARLY one thousand adivasi and rural people assembled from Maharashtra, Orissa, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and even from Sikkim. The urban poor of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi were represented. Experiences were exchanged, people wanted to make themselves heard. All spoke of the governments’ callousness, bureaucratic deviousness, police violence, and clandestine corporate control over the government machinery to act in their favour. A few samples are given here. Speaking of the government’s economic and physical violence against poor people, Dayamani Barla from Jharkhand even posited that the States of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were formed for better and more efficient corporate loot of natural resources at the cost of poor people. Niketan Palkar from Maharash-tra, displaced by a Tata project years ago and destitute, spoke from bitter experience, advising people threatened by displacement not to leave their lands because they would lose everything and get nothing. People threatened by displacement were vocal in declaring that they would not leave their lands and would fight to the finish even if it meant losing their lives because without their lands, their lives had little meaning. The slogan “jaan denge par zamin nahin denge” said it all. Brij Kishore Chaurasia from Madhya Pradesh said that both the previous NDA Government and the present UPA Government were intent on mega river projects that will kill the rivers and lay waste to our country, and therefore we must unite to fight against land acquisition and displacement. Amravathi Chaudhury from Mumbai’s Mandaala slum gave an emotional and moving account of government’s harsh action of vacating the slum resulting in death of several people including children. Helen Mary from Tamil Nadu spoke about the strong resistance against displacement for projects that benefit corporations. Loden Lepcha from Sikkim explained how an insensitive and corrupt government has proposed 30 mega-hydropower projects in Sikkim (26 having been already issued Letters of Intent), seven of them in the Dzongu region reserved for the ancient adivasi Lepcha people under Article 371F of the Constitution of India. Thus, the government is flagrantly violating the Constitution (in the so-called public interest) and there is nobody who will listen even though there are two people on an indefinite hunger strike demanding closure of these projects because they encroach into the Khangchendzonga (Kanchen-junga) Bio Reserve and threaten the very earth that the Lepcha people live on, with huge landslides and drying of rivers.

Government officials and some politicians had been invited to attend the dharna, and in a refreshing deviation from the past when not even one deigned to attend previous dharnas, Lok Sabha Member Sandeep Dixit and Rajya Sabha Member Anwar Ali took the trouble to be present for some time on April 29, and got a first-hand impression of the mood, the body language and the words.

People all across the country are dead against displacement and strongly against land acquisition. They do not oppose development but strongly oppose the development model that makes them destitute. There is a call to scrap SEZs. The govern-ment’s emphasis on economic growth (measured by GDP growth) without benefit to the large majority of people caused people at the dharna to ask the rhetorical question whether government was for people or for corporations. The writing is on the wall in block capitals—there is serious unrest all over the country. It remains to be seen whether the myopia of stock-market-committed economists who drive government policies and actions will allow them to read it, and whether the greed of politicians for money, power and votes will allow them to see the looming reality of spreading discontent as they spend public money in the Lok Sabha at the rate of Rs 6 crores per day, and whether the learned judges in the rarified atmosphere of the courts will take the trouble to read it.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere joined the Indian Army in 1961 and was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers (Madras Engineer Group). The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) in 1993 for distinguished services rendered. He has held various command, staff and instructional appointments in both combat and technical units and formations. He holds a Ph.D in Structural Engineering from IIT, Madras. Since his retirement in 1996 he is settled in Mysore where he is engaged in voluntary work in the social, civic and environmental fields as a member of Mysore Grahakara Parishat, National Alliance of People’s Movements and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He is also teaching a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for University of Iowa, USA, for the semester in South Asia at the Vivekananda Institute for Indian Studies at Mysore.

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