In many forested areas of India, the wealth of natural resources contrasts sharply with the poverty of the inhabitants, who are mainly adivasi (Scheduled Tribes) and dalit (Scheduled Castes) small farmers and labourers. The rich forests and mineral deposits are State property and their ‘development’ means that lands used by local people are compulsorily acquired by the State for a pittance. While a handful of local residents may get secure jobs on the lower rungs of the industrial sector, most are impoverished even further and survive on the edge of starvation as wage-labourers. Displacement not only worsens the economic situation of a community, it often spells their social and cultural death. Villages are scattered, families broken up, the fabric of social being is destroyed.
It is estimated that 30 million people, more than the entire population of Canada, have been displaced by the State’s Land Acquisition law since Independence. Of these, almost 75 per cent are, by the government’s own admission, ‘still awaiting rehabilitation’.
Forcible land acquisition is justified as being in the public interest since the State is committed to promoting economic growth by expanding industrial production and infrastructure. It is claimed that such growth is necessary for national development.
Since 1990, the Indian government has adopted a policy of economic liberalization, giving concessions and subsidies to Indian and foreign firms to encourage investment in production for export and the creation of infrastructure. This policy has led to accelerated land acquisition to build power plants, ports and highways. It has allowed intensified mining and water diversion. It has created industrial enclaves like Special Economic Zones. It has enabled other projects that transfer resources from the poor to politically and economically powerful groups. If this is development, ask the displaced, why don’t we benefit from it? And why does it irreparably destroy the natural environment?
These questions of social and ecological justice are at the centre of the activism that SRUTI’s Fellows engage in. Fellows have strengthened how communities mobilize to challenge and change development projects. They have worked with villagers to gather information and discuss it publicly, creating transparency and demanding accountability from the government. They have worked to bring together the poor and powerless into unified and sustained campaigns against mighty state agencies and private firms. These struggles highlight the costs and consequences of a model of development based on accelerated resource extraction to benefit a small section of Indians. They point the way to a more sustainable and just future.