An economy of violence


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IN the heartland of God’s own country, Kerala, flows river Pamba, on which is held yearly the famous snake boat race. This race takes place at Aranmula, declared a global heritage village by Unesco. It is now embroiled in a major controversy, for an international airport is coming up on 2800 hectares of its wetlands in contravention of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008. The project involves a diversion of 232 acres of ‘excess land’, explicitly set aside for the resettlement of landless families. The device used to circumvent the law is to convert the private project into a Public Private Partnership with the Government of Kerala acquiring a 10% stake in the project, another example of how PPP has become a device for private takeover of public resources.

On 6 November 2013, I was welcomed at Aranmula by the traditional boat song. Early next morning, I saw the airport site, much of it built upon streams feeding into the Pamba, the rest on paddy lands. To convert this into solid ground, a large hillock has been destroyed, significantly affecting the drainage. All this is not only visible on the ground, but in the Flash Earth imagery. I also explored Google Earth to find the airport site, suspiciously shrouded in fabricated clouds. Obviously the project proponents have a long reach. Long enough that the project is on despite being rejected by all ten local gram sabhas that met to consider it, and despite being opposed by a majority of Kerala’s legislators and by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Civil Aviation.

I also encountered many articulate women from the hutments set up on the ‘excess land’ by landless families. They claim that the land must rightfully belong to people like them and not be diverted for a project that involves a multi-speciality hospital, a shopping mall, a luxury hotel and an international school.

This project exemplifies the narrow focus of our development efforts on attracting large investments at the cost of the country’s precious natural resources, flouting laws and sabotaging democracy. This was all the more evident at the nearby stone quarries on Chembanmudy hill, the source of many tributaries of Pamba. There has been a major landslip in the region and an expert team of the Geological Survey of India has reported that ‘unscientific quarrying activity and dumping of overburden material’ was its major cause. The south-western flank of the hill has been extensively quarried and the hill slope and drainage channels have been unscientifically modified. The GSI team records huge dumps of crushed granite and granite chips on the hill slopes from which originate fifteen streams. Concrete water tanks near a buried stream course have created additional pressure on the loose ‘overburden’. Quarrying has created a large pond on the hill separated from the break-in slope of the hillock. The GSI warned of chances of a catastrophic pond-break during the peak monsoon, if the separating column containing filled debris material caved in under pressure of rising water in the pond.

What is going on at Chembanmudy reflects a complete disregard for many vital aspects of environmental conservation such as water resources that characterizes our ongoing development-conservation efforts. As the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) emphasized, we are currently practising ‘development by exclusion coupled to conservation by exclusion.’ Those in charge of this exclusionary regime inappropriately view conservation as a matter merely of safeguarding reserve forests and charismatic species like the tiger. After all, as the famous actor Robert De Niro remarked in Mumbai on his trip in early November 2013, he ‘didn’t want to go back from India without seeing the tiger’, and it is such interests that dominate the conservation concerns of India’s elite.


Quarrying, crushing of the quarried stone into man-made sand and transporting large quantities by trucks have had manifold impacts on the environs of Chembanmudy. The blasting and crushing of rocks releases silica dust that adversely affects forest vegetation, plantations and crops. As many as 125 giant diesel lorries ply on roads passing by houses, anganwadis and schools, making it difficult for students to concentrate on their studies. The diesel emissions and quarry dust have severe health impacts, with 150 people, 10 of them children, in the locality contracting cancer, chronic bronchitis and lung ailments. In view of all these problems the concerned gram sabhas and panchayats have issued safety related directions to the quarry operators, who continue to violate them with impunity. Consequently, people have been agitating for months altogether and have now forced some quarries to shut down. We are engaged, it would appear, in what the Gandhian economist, J. C. Kumarappa, has characterized as an ‘Economy of Violence’.


As the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz points out in his book, The Price of Inequality, we must aim at a harmonious development of the nation’s four capital stocks: not just man-made capital that GDP emphasizes, but natural capital, human capital and social capital as well. A GDP-centric viewpoint focuses on economic activity in the organized industries-services sector. So it will count as development gains not only quarrying, crushing and truck transport, but the boosting of sales of anti-cancer and anti-asthmatic drugs and increased employment in the health care industry as well. Since no proper records are maintained, other relevant elements of economic activity such as the decline in agricultural productivity and loss of employment for agricultural labour that ought to be counted on the debit side are being overlooked.

In addition, the erosion of natural capital, human capital and social capital have been altogether ignored. Thus, in the case of Chembanmudy, landslips and blockage of streams are adversely impacting land, water and forest resources. In case of Aranmula the filling up of wetlands and streams is destroying an extensive river flood-plain with consequent danger of severe floods further downstream. Aranmula’s many biodiversity-rich sacred groves are also slated to be destroyed by the airport.

Health, education and employment are three important components of human capital. In the Chembanmudy case, health has suffered, with even young children developing lung cancer. Mothers have petitioned that the unceasing truck traffic continuing till late night does not permit their children to focus on studies, even in the peak examination season. As to employment, there is little for local community members. Most of the small number of labour employed are from tribal tracts of Orissa or Jharkhand, people whose livelihood has been destroyed by rampant mining in their native districts. There are horror stories making the rounds of how this unorganized labour force is ill-treated, with no compensation for accidental injuries or even death. Indeed, the claim that India’s rapid economic growth is creating employment is dubious; the annual rate of growth in employment in the organized sector that was 2% when the GDP was growing at 3%, actually declined to 1% as the GDP growth rate reached 7%. So what we are witnessing is jobless growth, with accompanying erosion of human capital.


The social capital resides in social harmony, cooperation and trust. These too have suffered under the prevalent economy of violence. This economy is promoting grabbing and spoiling of land, water, mineral and forest resources to benefit a few, at the cost of the larger society. This is being facilitated by lawlessness and social injustice, as witness the clear contravention of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wet-land Act, 2008 and grant of excess land earmarked for landless to the airport project of Aranmula. With a number of landless families now squatting on this excess land, social disharmony is the order of the day.


The operation of this economy of violence might, with profit, be viewed in terms of the relationships amongst different components of the society and their resource base. From an ecological perspective, people belong to three major categories: (i) ecosystem people, (ii) biosphere people or omnivores and (iii) ecological refugees. Ecosystem people have limited access to sources of energy (other than human and livestock muscle power) and to the more sophisticated artifacts. They gather or produce most of the resources they consume from their immediate surroundings, from the forest, scrub, rivers or seas and from low input cultivation. In a few inaccessible localities, such as Sentinel Islands in the Andamans, they are still autonomous. However, over most of the earth they have been subjugated by the omnivores and have very limited control over their own resource base of natural and semi-natural ecosystems. They gather and produce little that can fetch value in markets and therefore have limited access to the produce of intensively managed and industrial ecosystems either.

The biosphere people or omnivores, as Ram Guha and I prefer to call them, owe their dominant position to their elaboration of and extensive control over knowledge, artifacts and additional sources of energy. They engage in energy intensive agriculture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, or in organized services or industrial production and generate much that is of value on the markets. They have large ecological footprints thanks to their substantial purchasing power; their resource catchments are vast bringing to them goods and services from all over the earth. Their ability to take over resources in demand by the ecosystem people facilitates transformation of natural and semi-natural ecosystems into those managed intensively to meet omnivore demands, including as sites for industrial enterprises, or as dumps of pollutants. In some special cases natural or semi-natural ecosystems are conserved for recreational purposes, from which ecosystem people are sought to be excluded, such as in National Parks like Ranthambhore with its tigers.

In the process, omnivores often deprive subjugated ecosystem people access to their traditional resources, converting them into ecological refugees. Ecological refugees are then people with attenuated access to resources of natural and semi-natural ecosystems, but with little purchasing power to access products of intensively managed and artificial ecosystems, including industrial enterprises. These ecological refugees constitute a cheap labour force for omnivore enterprises ranging from road and building construction, to quarrying and sand mining and harvesting sugar cane, or eke out a living as hawkers and domestic servants.


In this framework, India today may be viewed as a mosaic of omnivores, about 15% of our population, constituting the wealthy and the upper middle classes, largely urbanites engaged in the organized sector, but also large landholders, fertilizer and pesticide merchants, JCB owners and sugar barons of rural India. The rural peasants and landless labourers, herders, fishers, forest produce gatherers and artisans constitute the ecosystem people, about 60% of our population. The ecological refugees, the balance 25% of the Indian population, are exiles from myriads of development projects. They are people whose livelihoods have deteriorated as artisans have lost access to their resource base such as bamboo, herders have been deprived of their common grazing lands, fishers find no more fish in polluted waters, and peasants have seen their wells go dry and crop productivity decline with air pollution.


The fissures in Our Fissured Land as Ram Guha and I called it twenty years ago, have only deepened in recent decades. This was striking during a meeting in Cidade de Goa hotel owned by a mining family. This hotel has been embroiled in a controversy relating to its illegal construction in violation of the Land Acquisition Act resulting in denial of public access to an attractive beach. The Goa government obligingly passed an ordinance amending the century-old law, saving the hotel. The meeting was that of the Goa Golden Jubilee Development Council, charged with preparing a Vision Document to mark 50 years of liberation. At this meeting, government officials made a presentation about the Goan economy, stating that agriculture was in decline as nobody wanted to continue in the occupation if they could help it. As a corollary, the possible damage by mining was a matter of little concern; indeed the farmers were happy to sit at home enjoying the compensation paid by the miners.

Everybody but me nodded. The other distinguished members of GGJDC were scientific or technical experts, administrators and entrepreneurs, all omnivores completely detached from the life of the ecosystem people or the ecological refugees of the country. As a professional field ecologist I demurred and said that I would like to verify the facts on the ground. So I got in touch with residents of six mining villages and arranged to visit and stay in their houses, often sleeping with them on the ground, trying to understand the ground realities. It was clear that while a fair amount of agricultural land in Goa is not being cultivated, there are large numbers still wishing to continue in agriculture, partly because of lack of alternative employment, but also because for many of them farming was a satisfying choice. They are not being paid any reasonable compensation by the miners and do not want to remain idle. But, it was difficult to communicate any of this to the other GGJDC members, exposed as they were to the messages being continually broadcast by the powerful and prosperous mining lobby, firms which control of most of the media.

Yet, facts do come to light, and after GGJDC concluded its business, the Justice Shah Commission reporting on illegal mining in Goa noted: ‘But no inspection has been carried out (of the mines over decades in accordance with part IV, section 24 of the MM(DR) Act, 1957) resulting into fear-free environment which has caused loss to the ecology, environment, agriculture, ground water, natural streams, ponds, rivers, biodiversity, etc.’ This freedom from fear has been ensured, not for the people, especially the ecosystem people and the ecological refugees, but for the mine owners and managers and their allies amongst bureaucrats and politicians who have been violating laws and human rights with complete impunity, pocketing illegal profits that the Shah Commission estimates at Rs 35,000 crore.

As a result of the Shah Commission Report mining was suspended for several months. The Goa government then claimed that some 1,25,000 people had thereby been rendered jobless, and floated a scheme for their relief. Obviously, this is either a deliberate exaggeration, or crass ignorance, for hardly a few hundred people actually applied to claim relief.


India’s omnivore elite is therefore neither informed, nor motivated to pursue development that would transform an economy of violence into one of mutually beneficial relationships amongst the omnivores and the ecosystem people, and eliminate the category of ecological refugees. Reflecting this mindset the Kasturirangan Committee on Western Ghats rhetorically asks: How can local communities have any role in economic decision-making? Yet, quite clearly, they have a most vital role, since it is people at the grassroots that are aware of what is happening to the natural, human and social capital and their inputs are critical to arriving at a development strategy that will promote harmonious, balanced development. The sole duty of the actors from the omnivore sector should be to inform the people of all relevant facts and of the various development-conservation alternatives.

That is why the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel has explicitly stated that, ‘We should attempt to develop a model of conservation and development compatible with each other … to replace the prevailing "Develop recklessly – conserve thoughtlessly" pattern with one of "Develop sustainably – conserve thoughtfully".’ The fine-tuning of development-conservation practices to local contexts that this calls for would require full involvement of local communities. WGEEP believes that it is inappropriate to depend exclusively on government agencies for the constitution and management of Ecologically Sensitive Zones. Instead, WGEEP suggests that the final demarcation of the zones and fine-tuning of the regulatory as well as promotional regimes, must be based on extensive inputs from local communities and local bodies, namely, gram panchayats, taluka panchayats, zila parishads, and nagarpalikas.


There is every hope that this will come to pass in our democratic system as it strikes roots further, and as continuing rapid technological progress opens up entirely new possibilities for a people-friendly future. After all it is technological progress that has been responsible for the adoption and success of such progressive measures as the Right to Information Act. I, therefore, do not agree with many environmentalists who lay the blame for degradation of the environment at the door of science and technology. What is responsible for this state of affairs is the excessive concentration of power in the hands of a narrow elite, largely insulated from the adverse consequences of environmental and attendant social degradation. Yet, democracy has ensured that we have many potentially effective provisions for empowering the people and for taking good care of the environment. These include: the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas Act, Environment Protection Act, Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, Biological Diversity Act, and Forest Rights Act.


We must, therefore, focus on building our democracy bottom up from the grassroots level, an endeavour entirely in tune with the spirit of our Constitution that declares the people of India to be sovereign. Hence, the ongoing protests and court cases by the environmentalists must be complemented by organizing people down to the grassroots level to exercise their democratic rights. This is the only way in which we could fashion a law-abiding, genuinely democratic society that imbibes the scientific spirit. A well informed citizenry fully exercising its democratic rights will ensure that environment is properly cared for even as we continue to industrialize, as has happened in Germany and in Scandinavian countries. What we need to concentrate on is implementing that which by all rights must be implemented, namely, the constitutional provisions for protecting the environment and empowering the people.

Technological progress would facilitate such empowerment of people. With development of technologies of rendering text to voice and voice to text, the literacy barrier is being lowered. We should also shortly see in place facilities for universal translation from all languages to all other languages. At the same time, the last three years have witnessed a rapid lowering of the price of solar cells, rendering highly decentralized solar energy as an economically viable alternative. With these developments, India’s ecosystem people – those heavily dependent on the natural resources of their own surroundings, and India’s ecological refugees – those cut-off from access to their traditional natural resource base, but without access to the fruits of the technology based economy, will have overcome the two major barriers that keep them disempowered today. They will have total access to all relevant information, and adequate access to highly decentralized solar energy.


Hopefully, thanks to modern day crusaders like Assange and Snowden, the world would also be stripped of secrets; secrets that put at a disadvantage the bulk of the world’s population. Democracy will truly flourish in such a world and we will make a transition from today’s flawed representative form towards a direct, completely participatory, democracy. With abolition of vote bank politics through direct democracy, politicians will no longer be continually stoking the fires of caste and communal discord, permitting India to develop a harmonious, albeit highly diverse society.

This direct democracy will rein in the exploitation of India’s countryside and India’s ecosystem people by a technology based, increasingly automated economy that is currently busy preying on and despoiling natural resources that are the mainstay of sustenance of the vast majority of India’s population. With an end to such exploitation, there will no longer be a place in India for highly flawed forms of patronage such as MGNREGA and Food Security Bill. Instead, true empowerment of people would bring prosperity to the natural resource based, labour intensive sector of the economy which will confer dignity and satisfying livelihoods on the bulk of India’s population.


I have the privilege of glimpsing at the beginnings of these possibilities in a remarkable Gond tribal village, Mendha(Lekha) of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. On entering the village one is greeted by signs proclaiming: We have our government in Mumbai and Delhi, but we are the government in Mendha(Lekha)! In the teeth of bureaucratic resistance to honest implementation of the Forest Rights Act, they and hundreds of other villages of Gadchiroli have won rights over community forest resources and are now striving to build a thriving economy on this rich resource base. On top of this they are voluntarily setting aside a good fraction of the land as strict nature reserves.

India must and, of course, will continue to develop a vibrant technology based economy as well. Inevitably this will be highly automated and therefore employ only a small proportion of our vast population. But this modern economy must come to assume a mutualistic, a supportive and not a predatory role towards the natural resource based, labour intensive sector of the economy. That is the only route towards balanced and harmonious economic and social development.