PCDForum Column #77, Release Date July 10, 1995
by Smitu Kothari
As far back as the mid-19th century of people in India’s tribal areas organized
protests and rebellions against British colonial laws such as the Forest Act of
1876, which prevented their use of the forest lands on which their way of life
depended. Though India gained its independence in 1950, the displacement once
associated with colonialism continues in the name of development.
Since Independence, development projects under India’s Five-Year plans have
displaced about 500,000 persons each year–evicted from their lands by direct
administrative actions of government. This figure does not include those
deprived of their livelihoods by the expansion of large estate monoculture
production, or those deprived of their livelihoods by project related natural
resource extraction, urban evictions, or by the relocation of other
displacement victims. Estimates of the total number of those displaced by "development"
since independence reaches as high 40 million people. India’s recent thrust to
open itself to the global economy and rely more on market forces will surely
accelerate the displacement.
Hydroelectric and irrigation projects are the largest source of displacement and
destruction of habitat. Other major sources are mines, thermal and nuclear power
plants, industrial complexes, military installations, weapons testing grounds,
railways, roads, and the expansion of reserved forest areas, sanctuaries and
Displacement results in dismantling production systems, severing trade and
market links, desecrating ancestral sacred zones, graves, and temples,
scattering kinship groups and extended families, and weakening cultural systems
of self-management and control. The consequences are especially severe for
women. They lose access to the fuel, fodder and food they traditionally
collected for their households from common lands. They thus face increased
pauperization and are thrust into the margins of the labor market.
Though India’s tribal people make up roughly 7.5 percent of the population, over
40 percent of those displaced from 1950 to 1990 were from tribal communities.
Since 1990 the figure has risen to 50 percent. Planners and administrators
invariably capitalize on and manipulate the relatively weaker socio-economic and
political position of most of the people facing displacement. Their numbers are
underestimated, they are treated indifferently and only minimal cash
compensation, if at all, is paid. They are rarely granted security of tenure on
alternative developed land sites. All too often after a painful and traumatic
period of establishing a new lifestyle, they are informed they must move again
to make way for yet another project. Despite the scale of the displacement and
the efforts of some governmental and independent groups, resettlement efforts
continue to be shoddy and grossly inadequate.
In the post-Independence period, progress, national self-sufficiency,
industrialism, and large development projects were seen as synonymous. Carried
by the euphoria of nation building, most "sacrifices" sought by the
rulers were widely seen as legitimate, justified as being for the "national
good." Given the number of displacements and the plight suffered by the
displaced, many are now asking: whose nation is it? Whose good is being served?
A common question from people facing displacement is that while precise details
exist regarding the technical and economic aspects of the projects, backed by
scores of professionals, why is there never a plan for them? Why are they never
Even where government does attempt to address its responsibility to the
displaced, there is an underlying assumption that since displacement is
inevitable, the need is to "deal" with the trauma, not to question the
project, much less the development model, that is causing the displacement. No
one considers that perhaps the current pattern of economic development invoked
to justify the forced evictions of people is itself incompatible with the goals
of equity and social security.
It is time to recognize that the projects in which massive public investments
are being made involve not only the harnessing of natural resources such as
land, water, minerals, and forests, they also alter the existing distribution,
use, access to, and control over natural resources among different sections of
society. This raises vital issues concerning fairness, equity and justice.
An improvement in the lives of those whom a project otherwise imposes severe
costs in order to create benefits for others should be considered an
entitlement, not an act of reluctant generosity–a basic test of project
benefit. While the first goal should be to find alternatives that cause minimal
displacement, in those instances where displacement is inevitable, it is
imperative that the full costs of rehabilitation be internalized into the
Smitu Kothari is editor of the Lokayan Bulletin, 13, Allpur Road, Delhi 110054,
India. Fax (91-11) 662-6837 and a contributing editor of The People-Centered
Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum
based on his editorial in the March-April 1995 Lokayan Bulletin.
People-Centered Development Forum articles and columns may be reproduced and
distributed freely without prior permission.