PCDForum Column #21   Release date December 1, 1991

by Smitu Kothari

Many foreign assistance agencies have recently proclaimed new commitments to

the environment and to democratization. These are essential priorities of the

1990s, but to date only a minuscule percentage of assistance from Japan, the

United States, Western Europe, the Soviet Union and the multilateral agencies

has enhanced environmental sustainability or the exercise of the most basic

human right to live in peace and dignity as a member of a self-governing

community. Assistance agencies have yet to acknowledge that most aid propagates

a development model that does quite the opposite. In India both the problem and

its solution have deep historical roots.

India was originally endowed with one of the most diverse ecosystems on the

planet. As India’s people adapted to this diversity they evolved a rich variety

of cultures and belief systems that sustained complex and varied relationships

between themselves and the ecosystem they inhabited. While significant

injustices prevailed, a base of symbiotic social and environmental relationships

provided for most people’s basic needs.

Two centuries ago British colonialism imposed an alien model of

industrialization that depended heavily on the exploitation and processing of

natural resources at a rate far beyond their capabilities for regeneration.

Legal and administrative structures were introduced to facilitate this process,

and gradually indigenous systems of production that did not fit colonial

interests were systematically devalued. Vast quantities of land that previously

had provided food for local populations were converted into cotton and indigo

plantations. Our forests were recklessly cut to meet commercial demands. While

cooperating local elites reaped rewards, the benefits went mainly abroad

exacerbating widespread deprivation and poverty in India.

This model, carried forward by India’s post-independence leaders, continued

the ruthless exploitation of natural resources and deprived more millions of

their traditional sources of livelihood and meaning. Poverty and rural

development programs rarely touched the imbedded system and often deepened the

people’s dependence on state and central governments. As with the British, the

use of force is often necessary to assure the system’s continued access to cheap

labor and resources. When groups peacefully protest this violation of their

basic rights, they have been harassed, fired upon, arrested, implicated in

fabricated legal cases and even killed.

Foreign assistance agencies are increasingly involved. For instance, a

complex of super-thermal power plants being built the Singrauli region of

Northern India, with official World Bank, Japanese, British and Soviet financing

has displaced tens of thousands of people over the last two decades. Six years

of public protest have produced multiple assurances from project officials, but

not a single family has been resettled with secure tenure. In April of this year

tribals who were peacefully protesting the inadequacy of resettlement plans for

the World Bank funded Survarnarekham Dam Project in South Bihar were attacked by

the police, the tent they used for shelter was burned, and over 250 were

arrested. In the past year alone, there have been over a dozen major police

actions against those threatened with displacement by the Sardar Sarovar dam

project on the Narmada river.

Each of these loan funded projects has contributed to India’s external debt

and placed growing burdens on its foreign exchange reserves by increasing

dependence on the continued import of technologies, fuels, and chemicals not

indigenously available. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 1991, India borrowed

$3.5 billion just enough for debt servicing. The current external debt stands at

around $70 billion. This has necessitated a sharp increase in exports of fruit,

and vegetables, animal and fish feed and primary natural resources most to the

detriment of poor people’s access.

Some economists argue that economic "liberalization" lifted over

100 million people above the poverty line between 1977-78 and 1987-88 and that

the rural market expanded significantly. Even if this were true, they seem to

have neglected the ecological impact, India’s deteriorating balance of payments

situation, and the fate of the bottom 25 to 30 percent of the population who

continue to be pushed to the margins of survival. Now sweeping new economic

policy changes are being introduced reflecting continued faith in failed

trickle-down strategies.

Local ecology movements are springing up all over India to protest the

social and ecological destruction being wrought by an unsustainable development

model and to define an alternative that respects democratic decision-making and

restores to local communities access to and control over productive natural

resources an essential requirement for ecological stability and social justice.

Rather than tinkering futilely with the present system, they seek a

transformation that respects the holistic nature of natural processes. They work

against massive opposing forces. Unless such people’s movements from all over

the world join in their efforts to increase the democratic space for all such

struggles, our future looks grim indeed.

Smitu Kothari is editor of the New Delhi based Lokayan Bulletin and a

contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was

prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his editorial "Foreign

Assistance and Ecological Stability in India," Lokayan Bulletin,

March-April 1991. Presently a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Cornell University, his

current address is 423 Cascadilla St., Ithaca, New York 14850. Phone (607)


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