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) 273-2454.

Back ] Home ] Parent Page ] Next ]