Oligarchy of greed

The rise of billionaires has been mistakenly presented as the rise of India. It is they who own the nations natural resources.

The Supreme Court’s verdict cancelling 122 2G licences recently lauded the role of some enlightened citizens and non-governmental organisations in India for bringing to light how scarce natural resources of the country have been grabbed by ‘those who enjoy money power and who have been able to manipulate the system.’

But for the role of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the Supreme Court, the ‘rampant, unauthorised, unregulated, environmentally unsustainable and illegal mining that had no parallel in the country’ in Bellary, Chitradurga and Tumkur districts in Karnataka would also have gone on.

Environmental activist Vandana Shiva in one of her monographs titled ‘The Indian Oligarchs’ traced the loot and plunder of natural resources to the introduction of the new industrial policy in 1991 since when crucial economic sectors such as power, telecommunications, infrastructure, mining and banking, including manufacturing sectors like iron, steel and ship building were opened up for private business ownership. She bitterly noted how all traditionally common property resources, public goods and services – including water, electricity, telecommunications, health and education – were steadily enclosed and privatised.

Who owns India’s common property resources: the government, private corporations/ individuals or communities? According to Shiva, dollar billionaires from India who routinely occupy the top slots of the Forbes billionaires list, who are dubbed often the true visionaries, are nothing but ‘oligarchs.’ The economic rise of India’s billionaires has thus been misleadingly presented as ‘the rise of India.’ It is they who own the nation’s natural resources.

This ‘rise’ has spelled doom for a vast majority of Indians who belong to agricultural communities, who are fishermen, landless labourers, adivasis and tribals on whom an alien way of life has been superimposed, ‘where wealth translates into nothing more than consumerism, the pursuit of material possessions and overconsumption in a dense, urban context.’ Neither the India’s Special Economic Zones nor the oligarchs subscribe to any sense of community obligation and the stories of displacement of local communities and the decimation of small, sustainable livelihoods have largely been overlooked. The Niyamgiri battle, following Vedanta lobbying hard to feed its aluminium smelters by mining bauxite from the rich hills of Niyamgiri is just one example among many, of the link between wealth accumulation for the few and impoverishment for the many causing the Dongria Kondh to face displacement, loss of livelihood and, ultimately, genocide.

Following the scams in mining and spectrum, massive irregularities in the Posco project or in construction of Delhi’s new airport – to name just a few – could one be blamed to think that privatisation of natural resources and monopoly services, and the crony capitalist nexus between government and big corporations are the biggest source of corruption today?

Unforeseen strains

What are the global consequences of the plunder of the natural resources? A UN Human Development Report had warned that runaway growth in consumption in the past fifty years was putting unforeseen strains on the environment. Forests are shrinking, fish stocks are declining, soil degradation and desertification are rising, and pollution and waste are being generated at a far greater rate than the earth can absorb. Freshwater supply has been pushed beyond the limit and the crisis is all poised to emerge as a major environmental issue.

The problem with an environmental prognostication is that because of its cosmic nature it is not taken seriously. A vast inequality in the levels of consumption around the world exists and millions of people do not have access to their needs for survival. Not only are many people consuming too much, but some people lack access to basic necessities.

According to an estimate, despite having big land mass of 329 million hectares, the per capita forest land in India is only 0.09 hectares and decreasing rapidly against the world average of 1.0 hectares. Several hectares of good crop and forest lands have been destroyed in 40 contiguous districts of central and eastern India, the tribal heartland by mining operations and hundred of villages have been depopulated.

One might be tempted to argue that consumption inequality, which is clearly unjust and unsustainable, is a reality in an unequal world. The most illustrative example of this inequality is the USA where 5 per cent of the world’s population consumes 30 per cent of the world’s resources and creates 30 per cent of the world’s waste. If everyone on the planet consumed at US rates, we would need 3 to 5 planets to support our consumption! The irony is that natural resources are not specific to a geographical area and the powerful countries try to grab them disproportionately never realising that we simply cannot run an exploitative and linear consumption system indefinitely on a finite planet. But it is no less painful to see this cycle replicated in a subset of India with such a monumental divide between the super-rich at the top and the rabble at the heap.

For India the paradox is interesting. The world’s largest democracy rests a large chunk of its land and natural resources on the hands of a few oligarchs. Unable to arrest its population growth that makes a drain on its natural resources and puts pressure on land, India nurses first world ambitions without coming to terms with its increasing urbanisation, its need for industrialisation , its aspiration to mindless consumption, and wasteful life styles of the privileged clique. Our own democratic governments have since 1947 evicted millions of rural poor from their homes and habitats in the name of ‘national development’.

And the tale of this plunder of India’s resources by the invaders and colonisers – by the Mughals and the British and now by independent governments who turned out to be even more rapacious than the alien rulers – could possibly account why India scaled down from years of prosperity – for many thousands of years – to an impoverished nation struggling with poverty and malnutrition. 

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