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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

Development for Whom?

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by N Jamal Ansari

Recently eight eminent environmentalists urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to abandon three hydel power projects on Bhagirathi river in Uttarakhand. All environmentalists are members of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). They demanded that the 130 km stretch from Goumukh to Uttarkashi be declared as “No Project Area”. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh assured that the “Ministry of Environment and Power will study projects in Loharinag Pala (600 MW), Pala Maneri (480 MW) and Bhairon Ghati (380 MW) and submit its report to the NGRBA within two months. Till then the work will remain stopped.”

Environmentalists who have opposed the three hydel projects are not ordinary activists. The group comprises Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh, Dr R.H. Siddiqui a retired Professor and renowned environmentalist of the AMU, and Vir Bhadra Mishra, the Mahant of Sankat Mochan Mandir, Varanasi. The question of continuation of controversial projects should be addressed not by the definition of development alone. Environmental impact and faith must be taken into consideration.

The debate on development versus environment always tilts towards the capitalist class. It always ignores the humanistic approach towards the deprived and marginalised classes. Most planners in Third World countries overlook the wishes and aspirations of the common people. The Third World with its rapidly shrinking natural resources base calls for a planning approach which deviates from textbook theories. India is predominantly an agricultural nation which also registered impressive industrial growth. It has also a high degree of political freedom and is well endowed with scientific and technological power. The shortage of power is claimed to be one of the most important reasons behind slow industrial progress. In most of the capitalist-oriented development plans, it is the generation of electricity which acts as excuse for exploitation of resources and damages to environment. From time to time, people have launched movements against various threats to environment. The best known of them is no doubt the Chipko movement and Narmada Bachao Andolan. Similarly, adivasis have been agitating against planting of commercial profitable trees like teak in place of traditional ones like sal. Experiences show that the government always supports the interests of the capitalist class. “We, the people of India” don’t exist for them.

The debate should focus on the question: who stands to gain from development? A vast sum of money is spent on huge development projects but they are flawed because short-term gains alone seem to be the most important criterion. We should distinguish between resource capital in the form of fixed assets like fossil fuels and income in the shape of renewable energy. Any form of human intervention that adversely effects the generation of such resources on a long term basis can hardly be said to constitute development. It was not without logic that Dr H.K. Jain, the Director of the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, emphasised in the First National Environmental Congress in Delhi (1982) that “the country should go back to the traditional systems of agriculture”. The gulf is widening between two sections of the Indian society—represented by those above and those below the poverty line. Hence it is necessary to raise some uncomfortable questions about the continuing preference of the government for big development projects.

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It has became our habit to take the industrial society as the ultimate national objective which we must attain. We forget only a third of the world population enjoys the benefit of a fully technological society. We should realise that the rapid spread of computerisation and technology communications and industrialisation will undergo a gradual change where big workplaces give way to fragmented ones. Those who believe that a modern society has to be founded on urbanisation and high energy consumption ought to remember the hollowness and uncertainty of such a society. People migrate from the rural areas to cities in search of jobs. The growing number of unemployed people living in slums is the direct result of the inability of the industrial sector to provide work to those who seek it.

India should study the Chinese experiments. China believes small is beautiful and possible. China did not go for big industries or dams. It made direct investment in the farm sector and more investment in non-farm activities in the 1960s. The policy was reinforced by further investment and latest technology in the shape of seeds and fertilisers. It went for fisheries, animal husbandry, small scale mechanisation with tools produced in village workshops. Now the clock seems to have come full circle and in the post-Mao era China went for big technology. We must bear in mind that it went for “big” technology after providing its citizens with a minimum standard of living. The potential for turning to small technology is tremendous. What I want to convey may be understood by the example of the Swedish multinational manufacturing WIMCO matches. It produces a third of the total matches in India and employ only 15,000 people. On the other hand cottage match units employ as many as six million. India needs small and cottage industries, not multinational and big industries.

Policy-makers must know that improvement in technological inputs in the rural areas coupled with social reforms would provide opportunities to the deprived and marginalised people of our social pyramid to break the chain of poverty. It will make the villager self-dependent. Resources should not be extracted from the rural areas to bring prosperity to the cities but must be exploited where they are. Lester Brown rightly says that “we have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children”.

Environmentalists who have opposed projects on Bagirathi must be supported from all quarters. This is not a simple matter. Apart from environmental issues, faith is also involved. No development plan, no government and no authority have a right to dent the religious faith of its citizens. It is high time that a debate on development versus environment should be addressed from the humanistic standpoint. Moreover from Gomukh to Uttarkashi no industrial activity or project should be taken up. Apart from other damages, initiating any project in the area will hurt the religious feelings of a majority of Indians.

The author is an Aligarh based social and political commentator.

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