A few weeks ago, Nick posed a question on this blog as to what is the most pressing legal issue today. He stated that in his experience, Indians view the state’s obligation to lift them out of poverty as “the core promise of the state”. Given that promise, Nick argued that today,
“the biggest legal challenge in India today is not Ayodhya, or the constitutionality of reservations, or POSCO, or NAZ; even though these are all critical to how India’s future will be shaped and in some cases threaten to potentially tear the country apart. The largest challenge is to close the gap between what the law says and what is implemented.”
The rest of Nick’s post focused on improving implementation mechanisms and exploring administrative law mechanisms to ensure greater implementation of laws in Indian society. I wholeheartedly endorse Nick’s argument about the necessity to eliminate corruption, understood in its simplest form as the sort of sordid saga that has been playing out in the Telecom ministry and the Congress government of late, which has permeated through the length and breadth of the Indian polity. But certainly when we speak about the gap between law and implementation, we cannot assume the neutrality of “law”. Some laws should be implemented; others like the erstwhile S.377 criminalisation of sodomy or restrictions on adoption of children by married women should not.
More importantly however, I would like to argue that POSCO and other projects that involve issues of displacement and deprivation are fundamental challenges for the Indian polity. Without denying the importance of either the Ayodhya issue or the Naz judgment (particularly for minority groups like Muslims and homosexuals respectively), I submit that the issues relating to POSCO (and other projects like Vedanta in Orissa, the Adani Port and Special Economic Zone in Gujarat, and Jindal Steel and Power Plant in Chhatisgarh) are crucial to a vast majority of the Indian population. Not only are these issues significant for the poverty upliftment of 37.2% of India’s population or 400 million people that live below the poverty line, they are crucial also for the challenge to India’s democracy by the increasingly violent Naxalite struggle in India. The Naxalite movement involves a complex set of issues including lack of development, exacerbation of inequalities and distrust in state power bred by arbitrariness and corruption. At its heart however, the movement is about struggle over land and resources and related issues of displacement and deprivation. Today, 40% of India’s geographical area is engulfed by the Naxalite struggle, up from 33% a few years ago.
Each of the abovementioned projects, i.e. POSCO, Vedanta, Adani port (and there are thousands of others) involve displacement of masses of people, many of whom are completely dependent on common property resources, including the forests, grazing land and the seas. Many of the displaced peoples are tribals (like the Dongri kondhs in the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa), or minority groups (like Muslim fishermen with a 14% literacy rate in Gujarat). In each case, people are being displaced from land that for a long time (ranging from half a century to several centuries) has been used by them to support their way of life. In fact, so long have these people lived on this land that they should have recognized customary and easementary rights over it. In reality, however, the government of India fails to recognize even their existence on this land let alone any legal claims they might have to the same. In each of these cases, displacement means destruction of a way of life and the only means of livelihood available to the group because of the government’s failure to provide them with education or any other marketable skills that would enable them to adapt to a changing economic environment. The result is sheer and abject poverty of the kind that these people have not known so far despite their humble conditions. In each of these cases, the projects impose large scale environmental degradation, including cutting down of forests, uncontrolled mining operations, reclamation of the seas and extinction of animal and marine life.
People interested in poverty alleviation, ostensibly the NAC (although the extremely watered down version of the Food Security Act and the failure to ensure a universal PDS clearly belie that impression) need to pay attention to the simultaneous processes of immiseration that the UPA government has sanctified and presided on over the past 7 years. Mr. Jairam Ramesh’s efforts to give some teeth to the environmental laws in this country are highly laudable in this regard (given that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has rubberstamped every sort of project in the past in the most non transparent and corrupt matter without regard for the human or environmental consequences of the same) but he faces opposition from half a dozen ministers in his own cabinet and a neoliberal elite who think of development only in terms of growth rates and GDP. Consequently, his achievements will likely be limited. What is shocking however is the failure of print media to sufficiently highlight these contradictions in India’s development story and that of scholars and intellectuals to engage with these issues in a comprehensive and sustained manner. POSCO and Vedanta need to be understood not merely as involving problems of violation of environmental laws and corruption issues. They have to be understood fundamentally as posing serious ethical questions about the problems of redistribution and resource allocation in Indian society. There are ample lessons from history on how to better manage these fundamental tensions and contradictions within the process of economic development, mostly on what not to do. But to take advantage of these lessons, we first need to be mindful of the nature and magnitude of the problems we are facing.