Home Page Index Go to Bottom

Whose Nation Is It?

Smitu Kothari

As far back as the mid-19th century people in India’s tribal areas organised 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 as 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 parks.

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 increase pauperisation and are thrust into the margins of the labour 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 figures has risen to 50 percent. Planners and administrators invariably capitalise 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 consulted?

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 recognise 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 internalised into the project costs.

Smitu Kothari is editor of the Lokyan Bulletin, 13 Allpur Road, Delhi 110054, India. Fax (91-11) 662-6837 and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum.

Home Page Index Go to Top