Friday, May 20, 2011

Bodla Noy, Bodal Chai

We want Change, not Revenge. As Mamata Banerjee - Didi to her people - becomes chief minister of West Bengal today, she has with these words, affirmed her intention to move on from the bitter politics of the past and build a new Bengal. It might, however, be a good time to revisit Singur and Nandigram, twin rockets that propelled her to power and created a total disaffection with the Left Front, despite its early successes in land reforms and its consistent track record of no communal riots - though not of non-violence. These writings by Walter Fernandez and Somnath Mukherji, both written in 2007, are a timely reminder of the perils of the development paradigm India has settled for. 

West Bengal and most states that are offering land for the SEZs do not have a rehabilitation policy. West Bengal has promised rehabilitation in Singur because its farmers agitated against displacement. Most of those to be displaced from the 2,32,167 acres it has committed to industries will be deprived of their livelihood without alternatives. The result of not rehabilitating them is impoverishment. Studies show that most farmers have become daily wage earners, their income has declined by more than half, over 50 per cent of them are jobless and have slipped below the poverty line. Many of them have pulled their children out of school in order to earn for the family. In the absence of other sources of income
many have taken to crime or prostitution. Even if the promise of rehabilitation is kept, skewed land laws will ensure that its benefits do not reach many DP/PAP. In West Bengal, the issue is sharecroppers
and elsewhere it is the common property resources (CPRs). If the sharecroppers are registered, they are to get 25 per cent of the compensation paid to the zamindar when their land is acquired. Around 250
of the sharecroppers cultivating some of the 997 acres being acquired at Singur have not been registered so they will not be compensated or resettled. Also, the 1,000 landless agricultural labourers and others
like barbers who sustain themselves by rendering services to the village as a community will lose their livelihood when that land is acquired.

Most officials treat compensation as rehabilitation. Compensation is defined as the average of the registered price in an area for three years. It is a public secret that not more than 40 per cent of the price
is registered. Thus, by using this norm the state deprives the land losers of the full price. It may not follow even this norm in some cases. Farmers deprived of their land for the bypass and the Rajarhat township in Kolkata were paid an average of Rs 3 lakh per acre when the market price in that area was Rs 20 lakh. The situation is worse in the “backward” areas where price is low. In the 1980s, some farmers in Jalpaiguri district were paid an average of Rs 1,700 per acre. By today’s standards it would be about Rs10,000. Read on: Singur and the Displacement Scenario


Democracy was just going so well for India – the Sensex had finally synchronised completely with the New York Stock Exchange, rising and falling like a shadow; finally the US had started considering it grown up enough to be playing with dangerous toys; all indices were finally climbing – growth rate, literacy, destitution, farmer suicides, FDIs, military expenditure, obesity, HIV rates; so strong was the momentum of democracy that it spread beyond its territory and was successful in luring 8 lakh NRIs to get “Overseas Indian Citizenship”; finally tomatoes could be bought with stickers on them that read “tomatoes”; finally the gnarled lathis (sticks) of the security guards were replaced by shorter machine-finished shiny batons and elastic retractables were appearing everywhere to maintain queues. And just when we were in the final stages of imitation, some “backward” people started putting up a fuss about land, agriculture, submergence and all sorts of unscientific and regressive concerns. Cartographic manipulations were an easy way out to keep the trouble making people at bay.

It is the case of a state against the nation: a nation of people that get in the way of progress and development; a nation of illiterate, ill-fed, ill-clad people springing up from within this amorphous glob called the masses. How could these people represent civil-society? Are they not engaged in their struggles of daily subsistence? Surely they have not read Marx, Weber, Foucault or the tomes on developmental economics. How then could they decide what is good for them, let alone what is good for the society?

State repression in India is climbing to a frightening crescendo both in frequency and brutality. There is a widening rift between the state and the nation. Kalinganagar, Singur, Vidharba, Bastar, Nandigram and the arrest of peaceful protesters of Action 2007 have been one instance after another of the brutality and apathy of the state. Nandigram will remain a blemish on the face of the Indian democracy for a long time to come, unless of course something more gross, inhuman and barbaric takes place. The Govt. of West Bengal rightly claimed that the incidents in Nandigram were the machinations of “outside elements” – they were referring to the people of Nandigram. What they failed to mention was that the new cartographers were redrawing the lines which made the Salim Group and their ilk the insiders and the rural and urban poor the outsiders. If people in their agricultural stupor did not wake up to such updates, who could be blamed? Read on: A State against the Nation

Monday, May 16, 2011

"I’m here until we win, or until we have nothing left to eat or drink but dry red dust, whichever comes first.”

In her past life, Cheryl and husband Tony owned an upscale furniture company, and were “happy, free, party-going coastal Goans who knew how to enjoy life”. But Tony had his heart set on farming, and although this fantasy was foreign to Cheryl (who prefers the treadmill to a walk in the woods), she agreed. Seventeen years ago, they purchased these 240 acres in the boondocks dirt cheap, with savings and a loan. Cheryl continued to work in the city (“I love to work”) and bring in the money, and Tony began to build the farm. The expert they brought in to assess their water situation had some unexpected news. “Your farm is sitting on huge deposits of first-grade iron ore!” he told them, “Sell it and become millionaires.” The couple was not interested. “It was so beautiful. We knew we couldn’t let it fall into the miners’ hands.”

In 2006, while helping a neighbour, Tony was electrocuted and killed. Their daughter, Aki Zafran, was seven years old. Cheryl grieved profoundly and felt she would never pull out of the blackness. It was during all this that the night-time phone calls began. “Tony kept them at bay,” she says, “but now the jackals smelled an easy score. ‘Do you know what can happen to a woman alone at night?’ ‘How about some acid in your face?’ whispered unnamed callers, and: ‘Your daughter is so pretty, aren’t you afraid of what might happen to her?’ Their favourite was ‘Your problem is no man has ever taught you a lesson’,” Cheryl recalls. One agent, speaking for an unnamed company, offered her Rs 70 crore for her land. “The S.O.B.S will get this land over my dead body,” she says as her elegant mother Dora beseeches her to put at least the appearance of being a lady. “My parents, true Goans, taught me that women are equal to men; that we must strive to be free, and to do what’s right. No one can threaten me and expect me to go away quietly.”

The heavy mining began in this area three years ago, in ’08. Tired of the daily confrontations with the hundreds of trucks blocking the road at all hours, the red dust settling everywhere, choking the sprouts and flowers in the fields and orchards, the alarming depletion of the water in the wells and springs, Cheryl and her small household—mother Dora (84), daughter Aki Zafran (then 9) and housekeeper Rita—chained themselves to the entrance of a mine down the road. They were arrested, their few supporters badly beaten. Many of the women from these villages, still enamoured with the imagined opportunities the mines would bring, shouted and cursed her (“and my curses are just nothing compared to theirs!” she laughs).

And so she was surprised and a bit cautious when she received a call last month from the women of Caurem to join their struggle. Disenchanted, their fields ruined and trees barren, their water drying up, they had decided to fight the mines with all their might. On the first day of the blockade, just as Cheryl got off her jeep to join them, the police arrived and in a whirl of lathis arrested them all, 97 including Cheryl. “I’m not going home until they make me go,” came Cheryl’s deep, husky chuckle when I phoned her. Her small ‘jail kit’—contact lens solution, nice-smelling soap and toothbrush—had been tucked inside her handbag; “one never knows when one might be arrested around here,” she says. “Anyway, it’s nice to be here with so much company!” In the weeks since, on daily roadblock duty, a sisterhood has developed and Cheryl, at long last, is accepted as a local. “These are wise women, ah?” she now says, “they have a great sense of humour, and with their children’s very lives on the line they have become dangerous to mess with, like me. They have a new name for me,” she adds with delight, “the wife of the tiger. Now we get on together just fine.”

Not one to admit easily to emotions like loneliness, the new-found camaraderie suits her well and these days her shoulders look softer and her eyes, once clouded with grief, twinkle when she laughs. “I have a good education,” she says as we sit in the shade of the gazebo built on the spot where Tony was cremated, “I can buy a ticket and move to New Zealand with my mom and Aki Zafran and leave this whole damn mess behind. But my neighbours, my friends, they are so poor and have zero choices and are doomed if this continues. I am not going to walk out. I’m here until we win, or until we have nothing left to eat or drink but dry red dust, whichever comes first.”


Why is it imperative to escalate nuclear activity in India against all safety logic and the declared wishes of the Indian people? Suvrat Raju and MV Ramana, physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, unpack the puzzle.

In the mid-2008, during the parliamentary debate on the trust vote, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee explained that the Nuclear Deal was essential to avoid a cataclysmic shortage of power in the future. Without the deal, he claimed, by 2050 “our energy deficit would be 412,000 megawatts”.  Mukherjee then went on to tell Parliament that, by a curious coincidence, the deal would provide India with almost exactly this amount of power and “reduce the deficit... to only 7,000 megawatts.” In other words, the deal would allow the Government to embark on a frenzy of nuclear construction amounting to roughly two-and-a-half times the country’s total current installed power generation capacity in four decades.

In fact, estimates of both the deficits and contribution of nuclear power were questionable and seemed engineered to influence the debate on the deal. In 2008, Anil Kakodkar, secretary of the DAE, presented these figures for the first time in a talk in Bangalore where he also claimed that the deal would allow India to expand its nuclear programme by more than a hundred times by 2050. The history of nuclear energy in India offers no precedent for such an increase, although it does provide many examples of grand pronouncements. The first secretary of the DAE, Homi Bhabha, predicted that India would produce 18–20,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear power by 1987; when 1987 came around, India’s nuclear power production capacity was stuck at 512 MW—less than 3 per cent of Bhabha’s projection. In the 1980s, the DAE launched a ‘profile’, claiming that it would install 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity by 2000, but the Comptroller and Auditor General’s review of this programme in 1998 found that the ‘the actual additional generation of power… was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5,291.48 crore’.

Not only have no lessons been learnt from these past failures, but, on independent grounds, the DAE’s current projections are technically infeasible. They rely on untested technology, and are based on erroneous calculations. Given this background, there are good reasons to doubt both the projections of energy shortage for 2050 and the ability of nuclear power to meet it. However, even the process of trying to set up nuclear power capacity to the extent possible imposes many economic and non-economic costs on society that India can scarcely afford.

The key feature of the deal was that it gave India access to nuclear technology in the international market. The Government plans to use this new freedom to import several large reactors from the very countries that helped secure the deal, including of course the US but also France and Russia. France seems to be first in line. The six reactors that the Government has promised to import and install at Jaitapur are called EPRs and are being sold by a French company called Areva. Each EPR—an abbreviation for Evolutionary or European  Pressurised Reactor—will produce 1,650 MW, which is almost one-third of India’s total nuclear-power-generating capacity today, and about four times as much as that of the Fukushima-Daiichi I reactor.

The Government’s hurry to seal this deal has been puzzling because no EPR is in commercial operation anywhere in the world. Apart from two EPRs in China, where construction has not advanced particularly, there are two other EPRs under construction in Olkiluoto (Finland) and Flamanville (France). These two have already run up costs of over $7 billion apiece. In the US, the EPR is caught up in regulatory hurdles. It has not cleared the regulatory process in Britain either.

Why then would India rush to buy these exorbitant reactors from France? The answer was laid out clearly by Kakodkar. Writing for Sakaal Times, in Marathi, he candidly explained that ‘we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there… America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects’.

In fact, the nurturing of foreign business interests has been of such importance to the Indian Government that it has often been willing to take away the rights of its own citizens. Before they sell anything to India, these companies would like to wash their hands off the consequences of any disaster at their reactors. To enable this, the Government spent the entire 2010 monsoon session of Parliament passing a nuclear liability law whose primary purpose was to prevent victims from being able to sue suppliers for compensation in the event of an accident.

Continue reading 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Land Requisition: Looking beyond compensation

Land acquisition by governments may be old hat in the story of 'development', but the pain for those who lose their homes, their land, their farms or water bodies is fresh and vivid every single time. Those who think otherwise should for a moment, consider even the notion of the home they live in, being taken away for "national interest". I believe the time has come for rethink the idea of requisition as something that must not happen without consent. Compensation can only be a matter for discussion pending such consent. 

A second point. Nobody in their right minds would condone violence in any situation, but the story below as reported by the Down To Earth magazine, on the protests against land acquisition for the Yamuna Expressway project to connect Noida with Agra, is about the violence - both of state personnel and of the people affected - that can erupt when people's wishes are not taken on board. 

Three days after violent clashes broke out between police personnel and farmers in Bhatta and Parsol villages in Greater Noida near Delhi, the residents of the villages were under virtual house arrest. The two adjoining villages in Gautam Budh Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh was cordoned off by police personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF); media-persons were not allowed to enter the villages. Three fire-tenders lined the entrance of the villages. One tender was being used to douse flames in a charred building.

Ram Lal Nath (name changed), a priest and an eyewitness to the clashes says a lot of blood was shed in the past two days also. The clashes and exchange of gunfire began when the police went to rescue three Uttar Pradesh Roadways employees on May 7. The Roadways employees were being held hostage by farmers of these villages who have been protesting against land acquisition for the Yamuna Expressway project, which will connect Noida with Agra. The clashes on May 7 led to houses, vehicles and fields being set on fire. Two policemen and a farmer were killed that day and around 15 persons, including Deepak Aggarwal, the district magistrate of Gautam Budh Nagar, were injured. Aggarwal sustained a bullet wound on his leg. “There was exchange of fire in the past two days and must have cost lives, but no one has a count as people are not being allowed to enter the village,” says Nath. He has been living in the village for the past 11 years. He says has never seen such a situation where the villagers are not even allowed to step out of their houses.

Inderjit Kumar, a farmer from a nearby village says, the situation is tense in four villages—Bhatta, Parsol, Ashipur and Muttana. “We are keeping in touch with our fellow farmers in these villages through mobile phones and many of them are injured and hiding in their houses fearing for their lives,” he says. He alleged that the police was very brutal and beat men and women mercilessly on May 7 and 8 when there were clashes. There must be around 5,000 police personnel deployed around these villages, he adds. Nath says scores of residents are missing and no-one has a clue to their whereabouts. “In the past two days, I have heard cries, slogan shouting and exchange of abuses between farmers and police personnel. There are only children and women, men of villages are either absconding, missing or have been arrested by the police,” says Nath while hurrying away at the sight of approaching policemen.

Ascertaining the casualty at this point of time is difficult. “Nobody is allowed to enter the village and the official figures cannot be believed,” says Mahendar Singh Charoli of Charoli village nearby. The build up to the clashes began in January this year when Manveer Singh Tevatia, a resident, decided to lead the farmers of Bhatta and Parsol villages. He told the farmers that Uttar Pradesh government had paid them peanuts—Rs 800 per metre—for their fertile land under the land acquisition policy whereas the market price of their land is around Rs 16,000 per metre. This agitated farmers and they decided to protest. On January 17, a dharna was held by the farmers of these villages. The protests continued over the subsequent weeks.

The dissatisfaction over compensation is increasing by the day and all the villages have decided to unite on the matter. Mahendar Singh, who is also vice-president of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) of Uttar Pradesh-wing, announced a Mahaypanchayat would be held on May 12 to decide what course of action should be adopted by farmers of the Gautam Budh district. “Let all the panchayats come together and decide what should be our demands,” he says.