Commercialization and conflict in new India

India's wealth disparity

By Graham Peebles

Hailed as the world’s largest democracy and touted as “an emerging economic powerhouse”, India’s economy is beginning to cough and splutter with the rupee trading at an all time low, and the current account showing an 88-billion-dollar deficit.

Developing divisions

A decade of 9 per cent growth has created 55 dollar-billionaires, a new and burgeoning middle class and a vast underclass of people living in extreme poverty. The middles class has doubled in size since 2001, from 6 per cent to 13 per cent (amounting to around 153 million people).

Yet inequality stalks the land: in the cities with their sprawling, overcrowded slums sitting alongside the new high-rise shopping malls, between desperately poor rural communities and urban dwellers and within the countryside itself. There is inequality within inequality, as government definitions of what constitutes poverty are re-imagined to exclude great swathes of people in need.

India’s economic growth, neatly tied together with government corruption and neglect, has been fuelled by a toxic cocktail of 20 years of market liberalization, land grabbing and mineral extraction; the privatization of water supplies; and extensive dam building. Millions of mainly Adivasi (indigenous) people, who make up 9 per cent of the population, and Dalit (the so-called “untouchables”) people have been displaced by a range of enormous infrastructure projects, notably the corporate takeover of the countryside, which has seen subsidies to small holder farmers scrapped, access to credit made all but impossible, the Indian market opened up to foreign multi-nationals and a plethora of state incentives provided to Indian corporations.

The most acute sign of the community carnage being inflicted on the poor is the plague of farmer suicides. Drowning in debt and despair, farmers are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of one every 30 minutes, with around 250,000 taking their own lives between 1995 and 2009 alone.

Land, exploitation and resistance

The battle for land, and the demand for jobs for agricultural workers and the poor, lie at the heart of the development debate and at the core of the Naxalite (or Maoists) armed resistant movement. It is the the excluded and ignored groups who largely support the insurgency movement. The government regards the Naxalite’s as “terrorists”. The Maoists are India’s “biggest internal security challenge”, states the prime minister, adding that it is “imperative to control left-wing extremism for the country’s growth”.

Government “counter-insurgency” forces have long been deployed in the affected areas, the forests and mountains of central and north-eastern India. Military and paramilitary groups conducting “operations” against the rebels have been accused by human rights groups, activists and local people of violating human rights and committing acts of state terrorism, including arbitrary arrests, murder and rape. Human Rights Watch says that “custodial killings, police abuses including torture, and failure to implement policies to protect vulnerable communities, marred India’s [human rights] record. Impunity for abuses committed by security forces also continued, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast, and areas facing Maoist insurgency”.

Since independence India has been beset by violent insurgencies and secessionist movements. The government’s response to the uprisings has been consistently brutal, meeting Naxalite demands with force and setting them up as the enemy within.

The “red corridor”

The current, ongoing conflict is taking place over a vast area of the country, from Odisha in the northeast down to Kerala on the southwest coast; a channel of armed resistance known as the “red corridor” or, depending on your political standpoint, the “memorandums of understanding corridor”. Hundreds of memorandums of understandings have been signed by the government on the one hand and corporate India and multinationals on the other, bestowing development rights for mines, dams, water irrigation, factories, roads and land rights. All have been signed away without due consultation with local people who, like the millions living in dire poverty in the cities, are seen as an embarrassing irritation from the past, to be hidden from view.

The corridor holds within it many of the poorest people in the country, many of whom lend their support – and some their children – to the Maoists, who they see as defending their rights.

Both sides in the fighting claim to be acting on behalf of the rural poor, and both have committed appalling atrocities. Local people as well as civil society groups, are “being caught in the middle of the fighting – killed, wounded, abducted, forced to take sides, and then risk retribution”, relates Human Rights Watch. However, the government, has slammed the door in the face of every attempt at non-violent resistance and, inevitably, when people take to arms, there is going to be all kinds of violence – revolutionary, lumpen and outright criminal. Thousands have been killed and many others have been tortured, raped, detained or beaten. Villages have been destroyed, homes blown up.

The insurgency movement – estimated by the government to have a presence in almost a third of India’s 600-odd districts across 20 states – is strongest in rural districts that have poor governance and public services, where the government has virtually abandoned the poor. These areas are populated predominantly by Adivasi, Dalit and tribal people, like the Musahars or “mouse people” of Biha, so called because they are reduced to trapping and eating mice to survive.

A dark and frightening vision of the future

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram share a dark and frightening vision of the future. The prime minister believes the country’s salvation lies in moving people out of agriculture but fails to say what work these poorly educated and IT illiterate people will do.  The finance minister believes 85 per cent of the 1.3 billion population should be living in cities (whether they want to or not). The realization of his fantasy would force 866 million rural dwellers into India’s already overcrowded, noisy and filthy cities. The underlying aim of Chidambaram’s horrific vision is to sweep rural people off their ancestral land, to make way for Indian corporations and multinationals to swallow up the natural resource buried within the earth: destroy, speculate and accumulate.

India’s mining industry is poorly regulated and the government is indifferent to endemic lawlessness within the sector. Human Rights Watch looked at “iron mining in Goa and Karnataka to illustrate a broader pattern of failed regulation, alleged corruption and harm to local communities” that is taking place throughout the country. The scale of lawlessness within the industry “is hard to overstate”. it says. In 2010, for example, there “were more than 82,000 instances of illegal mining operations”. What little regulation there is, is “self-regulation”. Environmental impact assessment reports are “commissioned and paid for by the very companies seeking permission to mine” and pay little, if any, attention to human rights and community concerns. Many “do not even explicitly mention the responsibilities of mining firms to respect the human rights of affected communities”. Such inadequate reports are often falsified and inaccurate, and yet, “mining projects are almost never denied environmental clearance”, and people living on the land are not consulted at any stage of the assessment process. It is no wonder then that these ignored people turn to the insurgents for support and to act on their behalf. The mining companies are concerned with one thing only: extracting the iron-ore and bauxite and maximizing their profit.

Sharing for peace

The fight for land is occurring in many parts of the world, as multinational corporations look to expand their monopoly control on resources, production and supply. Whether building industrial sized farms as in sub-Saharan Africa, or mining in the heartland of India, the commercialization of rural regions proceeds apace, as does the murder and forced resettlement of millions of people.

It is an all too familiar story in a world where corporate interests and the state virtually coexist. Their interdependence poisons democratic ideals, leads to neglect of the most vulnerable, fuels inequality and continues the historic concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The notion of trickle down economics, where the elite fill to overflowing, and the poor pick up their left overs, is an economic model that has been thoroughly disgraced and discredited across the world.

An alternative model is needed, a model that meets the needs of the majority and in which economic benefits accrued from whatever source, particularly those flowing from the exploitation of natural resources, are shared among the people. Such a radical, morally sound policy would build trust and establish social justice, which just might allow for the violent conflict in India to subside and for peace to flower.

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