These issues introduce some of the key concerns that affect the people with whom Ekta Parishad works. Within each of these areas, there are specific laws and policies that apply to the rural poor in either supportive or adverse ways. No matter how pro-poor these laws and policies are, they are being distorted because of existing power relations. This is the reason that a framing land reform policy has been an important agenda in Ekta Parishad. It provides a policy direction on seeing land as an asset for the marginalized. With land reform in place, some of these pro-poor policies and laws could be implemented, especially if people pressure the system in their favour.
In July 2010 India’s Supreme Court dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the ‘Good Governance India Foundation’ to remove the word ‘socialism’ from the preamble of the Indian Constitution and repeal a 1989 law that forces every political party in the country to pledge allegiance to it. The petitioners argued that India was now a capitalist country where market forces formed the determining factor. The SCs refusal underlines the fact that India is constitutionally bound to its promise as a welfare state. It is also bound by the Fundamental Rights that promise right to life, dignity and livelihood. The government in its recent policies however, appears to be moving away from its responsibilities by seeking to replace ‘right to life and dignity’ with ‘right to food’ – the first being a fundamental right of every citizen and the latter, being a question of entitlement. The shift in thinking is reflected in other spheres as well where for instance, Planning Commission also advocates shift from land to providing sustainable livelihoods.
On the ground, government’s policies have met with mixed response from the people. The policy of 100 days annual employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREG) scheme has met with criticism in the tribal areas where it is felt that government is aiding private interest (in particular the mining industry), by constructing roads and other infrastructure projects such as dams and thermal stations. Similarly the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act introduced by the government to mitigate the effects of large scale displacement of rural folk, falls short of compensating land for land lost and does not put people in a position where they could influence policy on what happens on their dispossessed lands. India’s governance despite number of important legislations such the Panchayati Raj Act, PESA, and the Forest Rights Act that encourage local self governance continues to favour a top down approach – wherein it’s the Centre and the respective States that both propose and dispose policies that have bearing on everyday life of India’s citizens.
India’s land acquisition laws are based on the archaic Colonial rules that vested all land in the Her Majesty the Queen of England. The present law, Land Acquisition Act 1894 is based largely on earlier draconian laws enacted in the 1830s that bestowed overriding and proprietary rights with the British Empire. This Act has wrought havoc on India’s villages and tribal communities bringing repeated displacement and dispossession at the hands of the State. While in the 1950s the State acquired land for the public enterprises that mined mines, laid railway lines, built dams and steel foundries, the liberalisation of economy in 1990s saw acquisition of land for private entities including multinational companies brought through the door by the instrument of Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs).
Bolstered by large inflows of foreign capital, globalization of market economy and rise of corporate India, the State has been using the Act at will to acquire large tracts of land for commercial agriculture, mining, infrastructure, integrated townships, special economic zones (SEZs) and even private golf courses and racing tracts, despite large scale opposition from local populace. This has further aggravated the divide between the country’s poor and rich deepening social inequity, indebtedness, malnutrition, causing land alienation and brining large masses into acute despair and into the arms of gun totting rebels.
Agricultural relations in India have had a rocky history. Though the country did introduce land reforms by abolishing zamindari (feudal landlordism), introducing land ceiling and protecting the rights of tenants and sharecroppers in the 1960s and 1970s, its implementation has been severely lacking in most parts the country. This has given rise to absentee landownership, diversion of land for plantations, commercial agriculture, industry and infrastructure projects. All of which has denied most rural poor access to land or rights over natural resources leading to rise of Naxalism, which India’s Prime Minister has described as the most “serious internal threat” facing the nation. Ironically, instead of addressing the unfinished task of land reform, the government, some years back sought to remove limits on land ownership. The rationale was to promote contract farming and reintroduce leasing of agricultural land to meet the needs of large agro-based food processing industries. The argument given being that fragmentation of land holdings alienated private capital and made management of cultivation difficult.
The fact remains that about 78 % of Indian farmers are marginal farmers owning less than 0.8 hectares but accounting for 20 % of country’s cultivable land. These farmers have had no access to agricultural subsidies or even irrigation. On the other hand, owners of large land holdings have managed to avail themselves of government support and even expanded by taking over land from small farmers, largely for commercial agriculture, as it has happened in Punjab. This land grab for instant profit and maximum returns has led to over exploitation of soil (with the use of fertilizers and chemicals) and water causing desertification and bankruptcy. This lopsided agricultural development has fomented discontent and in many cases led to farmer suicides. Despite this, the new thinking dominating the corridors of power is to shift focus from ‘right to life and dignity’ to ‘right to food’ i.e., shift from agriculture to industry.
Gandhi was one of the first people to realise that if any culture is sustainable in the true sense of a lifestyle that does not damage the environment and can sustain itself for hundred of years it is the village. Nature, he said, provides for everyone’s need, not greed. Yet, Gandhi’s vision of village republics is today discounted as quixotic, impractical and that of aggressive corporate nation states as desirable and ideal. Tribal and dalit resistance to industrialisation is seen as ‘anti-development’ and the tribal people themselves as ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’. The stereotype argument often given is “do we want to keep tribes in a reserve/museum?” And shouldn’t we be inclusive and bring them into our fold, as India’s Home Minister, P Chidambaram famously observed. Modern thinkers and intellectuals reject this view and look on tribal and village societies as no less sophisticated than mainstream society.
But this is not how Indian government understands the matters and even though it has framed such progressive legislation as PESA it doesn’t seem to be too keen to implement it. Its response to people’s basic demand of ‘jal, jangal and jameen’ (water, forest resources and land) is to provide ‘inclusive growth’ by way of building roads, schools and hospitals in lieu of depriving people of their lands, rivers, culture and livelihood. In its scheme of development for primitive tribal groups the Ministry of Tribal Affairs advocates active ‘intervention’ in the social and economic life of the people. Thus virtually advocating ‘ethnicide’ or killing off of cultures. Profit is seen in exploiting minerals that fuels the arms race across the globe not in its people, that hold key to planet’s survival.
When the British left India in 1945, India was still largely an agrarian society. After Independence the country adopted a mixed economy model that was characterized by setting up of large public sector companies run by the State, a few large scale private firms, some small-scale private enterprises and a residual euphemistically dubbed as ‘informal sector’ consisting of mixture of self-employed hawkers and producers of large variety of low value goods and services. Post 90s liberalisation policies of the Government – dubbed by Indian press as era of Manmohanomics – opened the doors to domestic and foreign private players changing the economic landscape of the country. In 2009 India’s industrial output grew at a phenomenal rate of 16.8%, fastest ever in the last two decades. This boom in industry has been largely fueled by the investment in ore mining and steel production that in turn has given boost to manufacturing industry such as automobiles, consumer goods and infrastructure that comprises 80% of the total industrial output.
The collateral damage caused by this unrestricted development, includes large scale diversion of water and electricity to the industry, displacement of millions people (including farmers, tribals and other backward communities such as dalits traditionally dependant on land for their sustenance) and massive degradation of environment including loss of nearly 124,000 sq km of forest per year in the last decade alone. Ironically, India’s Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee in February 2010 described this ‘development’ as, “Quite encouraging.” This rabid ‘development’ puts on its head the conventional wisdom that assumes that industrialisation increases people’s standard of living. Whose standard of living? The millions of people that have been displaced and live in destitution or the burgeoning middle classes or the handful of industrial houses that today count as some of the richest entities in the world?
Traditionally domestic tourism in India was restricted to places of historical value, pilgrimage and occasional visits to relatives. Foreign travelers to India were largely restricted to temple towns, historical places and cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai. Till 80s however, India’s closed economy with rigid procedures discouraged private players. All this changed with the upswing in cheap travel options and increased emphasis on travel industry by international operators in the 1990s. In 1993, the notion of eco-friendly tourism was made famous by an agency that promoted Costa Rica as a rainforest destination.
India, adopted the fad in 2002 when it came out with National Tourism Policy that envisages tourism, in the words of former prime minister, AB Vajpayee, “as a major engine of growth”. The policy clearly defines the stakeholders as the tourism sector, private sector, industry sector and the departments of national and state governments. It is no secret that current form of ecotourism in the country has had an adverse impact on biodiversity, wildlife and in particular the tiger as well as lives of local communities including adivasis and other forest dwellers. The impact has been particularly severe in the areas falling under the Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution where people have been systematically deprived of community rights over their habitat, resources, cultural traditions and livelihoods.
India’s nuclear programme dates back to 1948 when it was felt that if India was to remain abreast with the world it must develop atomic energy. In due course, India’s nuclear programme led to two nuclear tests, Pokhran I (1974, which failed) and Pokhran II (1998) that made India, the land of ahimsa, part of nuclear club of nations. Before this India all along maintained that it was pursuing a peaceful nuclear programme, when actually the reverse was true. Today, notwithstanding over six decades of sustained and lavish government support (in 2002-3 Department of Atomic Energy was allocated Rs 33.5 billions as compared to Rs 4.7 billion for development of non-conventional sources of power), nuclear power amounts to just 3310MW, less than 3% of country’s total generation capacity. Despite the huge outlays and little nuclear generated electricity to show for it, and a nation whose 40% of population lives below the poverty line, India continues to push for more investment into the nuclear sector.
Apart from the non-viable nature of the project, there is also the looming worry about the nuclear waste that such plants would produce. Where will the government dump it? And who’ll bear the cost of nuclear disaster, if one occurs? Scientists have also pointed out that installation of centralized nuclear reactor or thermal plant and extending the grid to cover distant villages or towns would be an inefficient way of providing electricity. Such communities would be better served by distribution of renewable energy systems based on number of different technologies and sources – micro-hydel plants, windmills, solar energy and biomass based power. It bears to keep in mind that effects of Chernobyl disaster were felt up to the Atlantic coast, every country between Ukraine and Wales was affected by the radiation released.
There is no doubt that India is endowed with immense natural resources in particular metallic and non-metallic minerals. Till 1990s however, most of its mineral wealth remained untapped as the country sought to balance agrarian economy with State controlled industrialisation. Things took a turn when the government proceeded to disinvest public sector undertakings to aid reconnaissance, exploration, extraction of minerals and manufacture with the help of private players that brought foreign investment into the sector in the 1990s. According to Ministry of Mines, Government of India, 11 Indian states including Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Karnataka, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan account for 92.38 % of the total mines in the country in 2009-10. It is not incidental that these 11 states also account for most of India’s forests, rivers and wildlife and are home to nearly half of India’s population.
The country’s mining policy is unequivocally pro-industry. In its latest draft Mining Policy 2010, the Ministry of Mines while advocating 26 % share in the profits for local populace, mainly comprising tribal communities, dalits and other backward communities, puts emphasis on ‘sustainable development’ of the mining sector where the word ‘sustainable’ refers to ‘profit spread over number of years’. Sadly, story of mining in India is no different from that of other parts of the world, where the struggle for profits between companies and local government is being waged at the expense of indigenous people. It is no secret that corporate culture propagated by the powerful countries comes down to a single value: profit. Companies are legally bound to put the aim of profit for shareholders above any other consideration, including ecology and environment, which is considered important only as a public relations exercise.
According to latest statistics released by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), India’s indigenous or native forest declined by 1.5-2.7 % between 1995 and 2005 – an alarming average of 2.4% per year and a loss of more than 124,000 sq km per year over the decade. The Ministry of Environment and Forests in India also admitted in January 2010 that in the last three decades, close to 110,000 hectares of forest land was lost to 1,309 cases of mining activity. The loss of forest cover comes at a time when there has been massive diversion of forest land for mining, industry and infrastructural purposes leading to alienation of thousands of adivasis and other backward communities dependant on the forest for their livelihood. The country has a slew of laws and policies that regulates access to forests and its conservation.
In its State of Indian Forests Report 2009, the Government claimed that India’s forest cover had increased 5 % per annum in 1995-2005, it now emerges that this increase has been on account of plantation drive, that includes plantation of eucalyptus, rubber tree, pine, jatropha and acacia among others. This may earn the country carbon credits under 2001 Kyoto Protocol but will not reverse the damage done to biodiversity, man and beast. The Indian government’s recent rejection of environment clearance to Vedanta’s $1.7 billion bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa may now come as a breather not only for the tribal community of Dongria Khond but also its precious eco-system that is home to several perennial springs, unique species of animals, plants and herbs. It’s time the country reversed its forest policy to include tribal and village community as stakeholders and caretakers of our precious resources.
See also Implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA)
India’s water needs have been traditionally met by the availability of water from the rivers, lakes, ponds and beneficence of annual Monsoon. In post-Independent India, damming and taming rivers was seen as the answer to generating electricity, providing water for irrigation and prevent flooding. India’s first Prime Minister, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru called them, “the temples of modern India”. Today, India has over 4,000 dams more than half of them built between 1971 and 1989, yet one fifth of our population – 200 million people – have no access to drinking water. Increasingly, it is being felt that dams have caused more havoc and destruction than benefit. This years torrential Monsoons have laid waste large swathes of North India, causing man made floods, water logging, salinity and ill health. The calculation of loss – in terms of damage to properties, agricultural crops and revenue is yet to come in.
More importantly, dam building has by one estimate permanently displaced more than 40 million people in India. In the post liberalized scenario expansion of economic activities has led to diversion of water to large cities, recreation, commercial agriculture, hydro-power and industries. Water is being commodified – with the State reserving absolute rights over its use. In fact, India’s Water Policy envisages to “regulate water resources” without taking people into confidence. The question that begs to be asked is, does our land, forests, water and air belong to the State or to the people? Water is a precious resource that’s fast dwindling due to climatic changes and large scale industrial misuse and it should be seen as a common property resource over which all have equal rights.
Land in India is a deeply contentious issue. Its roots can be traced back to Colonial past when the British regime devised ways to ‘organise’ India’s agrarian relations to collect revenue and boost industrialisation in the early 19th century Britain. Post-Independence, in 1951, the Indian Parliament put land reform laws outside judicial intervention. It was now up to people’s representatives, mostly comprising the landed gentry, to legislate on land reform. Barring few exceptions, most of rural and tribal India, came to be controlled by a Centre-State dispensation that closely approximated feudal aspirations and kept most of the masses in dispossession and penury. The Constitution of India mandates an equitable society, one in which every person has the right to dignity and livelihood. Redistributive justice lies at the heart of this mandate, yet 63 years after Independence, India is still struggling to deliver justice to its citizens. The socio-economic changes caused by 1990s free-market economy, has further deepened the chasm between the elite and those dependant on land and forests for their sustenance.
This has led to deep turmoil forcing many rural poor to join hands with Naxalites/Maoists in their armed rebellion for justice. On 9 January 2008, The Ministry of Rural Development instituted a ‘Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reform’. The Committee submitted its report to the Government in 2009-end but there has been little movement on it so far. For Ekta Parishad, land is the key issue, since it provides the possibilty for the poor to live a life of dignity and well-being rather than become dependent on industrialization and urbanization.
The following legal documents are refering to some of the issues mentioned above.
Forest Rights Act.pdf
Indian Forest Act.pdf
Biological Diversity Act.pdf
Forest Conservation Act.pdf