The country’s Republic Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the possible existence of ‘development’ and ‘globalization’. Sixty-three should be a ripe age in the life of an individual or a nation, a time when all of life’s most important lessons have long been absorbed and inducted into daily practice. By this time, the past – with its myriad prejudices and immaturities – ought to have been conquered, and the future should be glowing bright with well-founded hopes resting on the foundations of a robust, self-confident present.
Instead, we find ourselves in messy disarray, in an uneasy senescence, even as it appears we have remained adolescent, atavistic barbarians in some embarrassingly obvious respects. Disturbing evidence of this arrived on a night bus last month in New Delhi. No less disconcerting, if more opaque, signs came to light the other day when Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of Rural Development, outlined his catechism on Maoism before an impressive gathering at a most prestigious academic institution of the city, named after the nation’s first Prime Minister. This writer was present at the occasion.
In his precise, eloquent exposition of reigning state doctrine, the Minister, to his lasting credit, traced the origins of Maoism to “4 D’s: disconnect, displacement, deprivation and discontent.” He lamented the fact that no government of independent India, including his own party’s, had ever seen timely wisdom in addressing the multiple “developmental needs” of the many distinct adivasi tribes of Chhatisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand. Instead, he acknowledged that successive governments had reductively seen these places as merely “mineral-rich areas”, leading to the “growing immiserisation of tribals.”
Defending the Indian State’s security policies in Central and Eastern India, the Minister said that they will not work without the fifth “D”: “dialogue.” It was right and necessary to beef up security operations, and development was long overdue to the adivasis. But for them to be effective, a political approach involving dialogue is essential, he conceded.
It was also noble of the Minister, who held the nation’s Environment and Forest portfolio till recently, to acknowledge that the Forest Department is dreaded across India’s tribal belt and that while the 2006 Forest Rights Act was a significant piece of legislation in contributing to the empowerment of tribal communities living by the forests for generations, the Indian Forest Act of 1927 was “a colonial relic”. Strikingly, he missed the even greater anachronism of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, singularly responsible for much of the “immiserisation” the Minister was concerned with.
The Honourable Minister also wondered aloud about the “resource curse”, in whose shadow India’s adivasis appear to be living. He might have wondered as readily as to why resource-rich Africa is so poor while Britain has prospered without too many resources. “Tribal-rich areas”, he felt, deserve better.
These are not light admissions by any yardstick. A lesser man or woman would have fought shy of them.
Question hour, for which an alert audience had long been in patient wait, arrived. The first question was asked in Hindi and the person stated clearly that the Minister seemed to present the ‘good face’ of the State, if not of the government, and asked whether corporate interests were not squarely to blame. Later in the discussion, a young woman from Chhattisgarh wondered at the flagrant contradiction that lay between the government’s land acquisition policies operative in her province and its entitlement policies (such as those based on ‘Aadhaar’ claims resting precisely on land ownership and residence). Mr. Ramesh opined that solutions will be found to such dilemmas, for the ore can scarcely be left under the ground by a growing nation hungry for resources. After all, he presumed “itna koyla aur loha dekh ke sabki laar tapakti hai.” None of us is a Brahmachari in such matters, he added. And nor do we have the colonies that Western nations have had to feed their growth.
The Minister had commented insinuatingly that civil rights groups were failing their responsibility and that Gandhians especially had been conspicuous by their absence in these areas, to which a lady in the audience pointed out that Gandhians were invisible for a simple reason: they were all in jail! This paved the way for the next salvo which was in fact fired by a well-known Gandhian activist who had been summarily thrown out by security forces from his ashram near Raipur a few years back. He wished to know if the Minister could offer even one example of a development project in the entire history of independent India which did not involve the use of coercion and violence against the people who lived off the land. Again, to his eternal credit, the Honourable Minister admitted that he could not think of such a case. However, he felt that if “violence” meant the use of guns and bullets, he could indeed think of many instances!
Two related questions followed from others present. The first person asked if the routine violations of human rights across India were not necessary concomitants of the development paradigm in place since 1947. The second question posed related to the explanation of the origins of this phase of Maoism in the early 1990s. Did it not emerge after the imposition of policies of liberalized investment when globalization was launched under Western pressure in 1991, when India was in the throes of a foreign exchange crisis? Did the acceleration of deforestation and displacement of adivasis not happen as a result of the compulsions of faster mining in a far more competitive world in which nations and corporations around the world have been effectively inveigled into a race-to-the-bottom in blatant violation of labour and environmental standards? Is it not true, as the researches of the anthropologist Felix Padel are showing, that the bottom of every major global supply-chain today – from the mining of gold to coal – is increasingly in the hands of lawless mafias, before whom governments are helpless? That to fight the injustices they precipitate, you need organized resistance?
The Minister dismissed the second set of questions by joking facetiously, suggesting that what has been globalized most effectively is Maoism. He evaded the questions about the development paradigm and the role of globalization in the rise of Maoism by describing them both as “theological”.
It seems that both the ‘God of Globalization’ and ‘The Development Devta’ are too sacred to be questioned in the New India’s emergent pantheon.
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”, Mark Twain once remarked acerbically. What the Honourable Minister, no less than his Party, or indeed anyone in the myopic ruling elites of this country, refuses to grasp is that in every self-respecting ancient theology, even gods are subject to the elements. One may recall how the wax wings of Icarus melted in the heat of the sun because he dared to defy Daedalus’s warnings and flew too close to it. Paraphrasing the myth for our day, and keeping in view such ecological alarms as global warming, vanishing top soils and biodiversity and rapidly receding water-tables, not to forget the impending rise in ecological refugees and the growing pile of farmers’ corpses, one may recommend to the Honourable Minister to advise his government to prepare the people for mostly foreseeable catastrophes, rapidly increase the recruitment of police and paramilitary personnel and also to order the construction of many more, and bigger prisons around the country.
Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based writer and economist. He is the author (with Ashish Kothari) of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (Viking Penguin, New Delhi, 2012).