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Pushed to the brink

Kanchi Kohli, Dec 20, 2016, 0:19 IST

Hanging in the balance

for whose benefit? Development projects have not only robbed people of their agricultural lands, but also led to their displacement. PHOTO by author
Seriously?” one of the participants in a training session exclaimed. “You mean to say the site inspection report was prepared after an aerial visit, and there was no on ground verification?” All I did was a combination of a half nod, half smile. I have told this story several times before and each time the recipient of the news gives me a variant of the same reaction. It is a combination of disbelief, anguish and a knowing smirk in reaction to an officially documented fact. The approval for diverting forest land for one of India’s largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was actually done without a field level assessment. A large steel plant and a captive port of the same project proponent were granted permission by the government despite this and several other lacunae.

For the people of the area, their agricultural fields, fishing areas in the coastal habitat of sand dunes and estuaries, this was not just a mere procedural lacunae. It was an official acknowledgement that the place they called home, the land they grew food on and the space that was in the realm of commons could just be picked up and handed over to a South Korean company POSCO. Worse, it was not even considered necessary to verify what constitutes life at the site of investment. As a result, a good 10 years have been lost for many. For those who did not resist, it was a long wait in transit camps and for those who resisted, a decade long struggle against the most violent odds. This real story of east coast of India, comes alive in many shapes and sizes across the country. The actors change and so does the location. What remains constant are impacts. When a mine, dam, port, industry or road is constructed, it is not without consequences.

Where the loss is forever
Some of these narratives seem to conclude, for some others even a decade is not enough. Not too far away from the place above, lives a hill tribe, whose name gives away their association with forests. Some of their kins have left home in place of work, others have stayed back to remain horticulturists and forest food gatherers. In their case years of campaign, political intervention and a court ruling meant not just that a bauxite mine will not erode what the tribe considers sacred; but also that village assemblies of those potentially impacted will have veto powers.

Once they vetoed against the mine, the story should have been over. The highest court of the country had upheld this constitutional mandate and a company had to let go of their mining dream despite having erroneously set up a refinery anticipating that the ore would eventually be theirs to mine. But the state government has far from let go of this area. They have sought the apex court’s intervention to say that the refusal of the gram sabhas (village assemblies) to disallow bauxite to be
extracted should not be in perpetuity. Till there is ore underneath Niyamgiri in Odisha, the eyes of the extractors will be on it. Never mind if the forests, it’s elephants and origins of rivers are shaved off for this table top mine.

There are places where the impact has occurred. People have left memories to forcibly accept shanties at the project rehabilitation sites. In Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, these took the shape of two room blocks. There were two kinds of people I met. First, those who had seen displacement three times over and second, others who had just moved into their new cement matchboxes through a process of relocation. Both groups had their vivid stories to tell, only the former spoke and the latter gazed in silence. “First they said the reservoir dam will submerge our agricultural fields and adjoining forests because in the 1960s a nation needed to be built. We readily agreed. Then came a mine and we had to move again. But our parents might not have agreed to the second site, if we knew that the railway line would come just behind where we live.” This is the story of three generations of a family growing up in a place where mining and power generation is its identification marker. The old ones recall their days in the forest, with tigers looming around and the young assert before a project authority who once promised families jobs. The little piece of resettlement house, in which an ever growing family lives is not for them to even sell and move on. These small quarters were never meant to be owned but were given to those displaced as compensation to what was acquired to build a public purpose project.

Growing investment networks
For a while in India, we talk about investment in large categories. Rivers have to be interlinked criss-crossing wild and cultivated habitats; an infrastructure corridor between Delhi and Mumbai is a web of high speed roads and smart cities; the garland of the sea (Sagarmala) is investment in new ports connecting the west and the east coast of India. Coal fields in central India already have close to 10 coal reserves identified on next to each other and river valleys in the Himalayas earmarked for a cascade of hydro power projects.

All of the earlier scenarios are already visible in one or the other of these investment networks. Impact assessments and forest diversion inspections are full of identified holes, some of them being fought on the streets, in the courts or both. What is being questioned is why the information about endangered species like the Black Necked Crane have been hidden from appraisal committees. Why are rivers being interlinked on an experimental basis to understand whether the damages will outweigh the gains or not. While we await the results, a part of a core zone of a tiger reserve might get fragmented.

“We did a site inspection,” the official said, “and all we found was grass.” Even though this case is currently being fought in court, the airport in Pune might get built because a grassland habitat is good enough to given as compared to a ‘productive’ piece of agricultural land. It is this distance that many stories of the earth also chronicle. One that pits the ecological and social fabric of an area with the decision makers assessment whether something is important enough to protect.

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