Some years ago, during an argument on the nature of ‘development’, a friend and fine Marxist academic asked: “Surely, other things being equal, one would prefer a high growth rate over a low rate of economic growth?” I have for years now veered towards the latter. In fact I would argue for ‘zero growth’ as some do except that I am not sure zero growth is possible under capitalism. But in retrospect, it is the assumption itself in his question is flawed: that “other things” can be ‘equal’ between these two growth trajectories. A high growth trajectory – as India has experienced over the last 15 years – implies: a high degree of inequality; a more reckless and wasteful consumption of scarce resources and a greater rate of displacement of the poor from their lands and livelihoods. It entails production choices that are driven by and pander to the tastes of elite urban consumers and the forced takeover of common resources forest lands, water, grazing lands, coastal land and fisheries, etc that are used by local communities, especially the poor- by corporate entities or by the central/state governments. You cannot de-link a high growth trajectory from this. As Communities, Commons & Corporations, the book under review, makes explicit, “The link between environmental destruction, loss of people’s rights over the commons and economic growth is not often realized”.
Communities, Commons and Corporations is the third major work by Perspectives, a non-funded organization of students and teachers at Delhi University whose task, they state, is “to document the lives and struggles of people on the margins of law and society”. Perspectives first published Abandoned: Development and Displacement (2007), which argued that the different kinds of displacement in India are an inevitable part of the model of development being pursued. Their second major work, Harvesting Despair: Agrarian Crisis in India (2009), analysed how the widening agrarian crisis is a conscious and inevitable result of state policy. The book currently under review (2012) shows empirically and conceptually how the dominant growth pattern in India has meant a forced alienation from their commons for a section of the poor. Each work is marked by a wealth of detail based on fact-finding trips to different regions of the country, on relevant secondary literature, and by argument that is both nuanced yet accessible. Taken together, these three works constitute a devastating critique of the current model of development in India.
Commons taken from common man
The current book under review, in brief. Based on field visits to Harda district (Madhya Pradesh) and Kutch (coastal Gujarat), the book begins by describing how the dependence of the local poor on the commons is getting undermined, by the state in MP, and by the entry of large private industry in coastal Gujarat. In Harda, the Perspectives team found an inherent contradiction in the way the Forest Department views the forests – as a source of revenue, and the adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers as ‘encroachers’, (a view widely held by Forest Departments in most parts of the country) – and how local people see forests – as a source of life, of water, of major and minor forest produce and a part of their religious beliefs. The regular harassment and repression by the state government that is a consequence of these clashing worldviews has been reduced only to a degree by the locals organizing themselves under the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, an organization of indigenous people and workers active in parts of Madhya Pradesh, whose activists have themselves faced considerable brutality. Perspectives also critiques the Joint Forest Management Programme, and the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Harda district, the former for fragmenting the community and the latter for its capacity to exclude those deemed to be ineligible under the Act.
In the case of Kutch, the takeover of the commons – fisheries, inland water systems, etc – is of more recent vintage, a direct consequence of the neo-liberal industrialization of the last twenty years. Fisher people and pastoralists have suffered a loss of grazing lands, decline in fish catch due to oceanic pollution and other industrial causes, loss of access to creeks that have been artificially dried up, the destruction of mangroves as a consequence of the setting up of Special Economic Zones, thermal power projects and ports by corporate entities such as the Adani Group. It bears adding here that this violent process of corporate takeover is unfolding in coastal areas all over India. One reason this book is significant is in its foregrounding the importance of the commons for the well-being of millions in this country. To some this might seem a commonplace, a stating of the obvious. But at a time when everything – water, roads, health care, crop seeds, electricity, rivers, the atmosphere, knowledge and much else – is being privatized and sold, and many people, particularly we who live in urban metropolises, have lost our sense of the commons, this bears reiterating. It also reminds us how central it is to our own lives, in our dependence on groundwater, a river, our right to clean air, forest produce, etc. One would have preferred an elaboration of the social structure in Harda. Two, it’s surprising that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is not discussed in the report at all, given its significance. Three, their linking the Forest Rights Act to exclusion and enclosure, and the selling of carbon credits under the carbon offset scheme REDD+ is interesting, but remains to be seen empirically.
Colonial roots of iniquity
The book locates the current process of takeover of the commons in our colonized past, in British reconfiguration of Indian agriculture, artisanal occupations and the nature of forest cover, all of which was driven by the need for taxation revenue, propping up industry in England and the demand for timber, particularly for the expanding rail network. Current land acquisition derives from colonial law, in particular from the notion of ‘eminent domain’ – which gave the state the power to take over private and commons land, with the limited caveat that it was for ‘public use’ – and from the idea that private property was for the larger good, a notion antithetical to people’s collective control over and access to the commons.
The book moves on to contemporary projects of coal thermal power, ports, mining, SEZs, asserting that the high growth of recent years has in fact only been possible because of the transfer of natural resources and corporate takeover of the commons. In their recent, superb book, Churning the Earth, Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari present interesting data that corroborates this assertion: deforestation that had declined in the 1980s (to about 17,000 hectares a year) partly as a consequence of environmental movements, shot up again from the late 1990s. From 1999-2007, it was 53,000 hectares a year, and over half the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes since 1981 has happened in the first decade of this century. Communities, Commons and Corporations narrates how the laws that facilitate land takeover – such as the Land Acquisition Act – do not take into consideration the needs of many of those who depend upon it such as artisans, sharecroppers and landless labourers. It makes the interesting point that large projects often tend to take over more commons land than private lands because it is easier for the state to do so. Lands are also seized in violation of the law and the book documents a series of environmental violations by projects such as the Polavaram dam in Andhra, Jaitapur nuclear power project in Maharashtra, POSCO steel project in Orissa, etc. The final section interrogates ‘growth’ from many vantage points, before touching upon alternatives in a brief Epilogue.
An assumption in all mainstream writing is that unfettered growth is a wonderful thing and that its gains will trickle down and pull people out of poverty. One work has received considerable attention, and recently won the Tata Literature First Book Award – Ruchir Sharma’s Breakout Nations: In Search of the Next Economic Miracle (Allen Lane, 2012). Sharma scouts all over the developing world for that miracle but his only marker of success is economic growth, to the exclusion of all else. However the gains from high growth, unequally distributed, don’t trickle down, they gush up. This happens in two ways: one is the extraction of surplus value from workers through the lengthening of the working day, an intensification of work, a reduction in welfare, and rising inflation. This has been happening in India for the last twenty years, but has only now got some attention due to the recent workers’ unrest in Gurgaon, the automobile and auto parts production hub just outside Delhi.
Communities, Commons and Corporations shows that growth and profits also derive from nature, from the cornering of land, water, forests and other natural resources by corporates. It is this latter process that has been facing considerable resistance in numerous pockets in India, more than the former. The latest report of India’s Comptroller and Auditor General – which blames the central government for a loss of Rs 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer from coalfields alone – indicates the extent of profits to be made from natural resources. Profiting from nature also happens because balance sheets do not reflect actual costs. So, for instance, Coal India’s consolidated net profits in the quarter ending June 2012 were a staggering Rs 4,469 crores, but this rosy figure does not incorporate the damage to the local environment, the effects on local communities, or the impacts of global warming for which coal is a chief culprit.
Communities, Commons & Corporations critiques the current growth trajectory and model of development in India from a variety of angles: employment generation (its lack); inequality (its persistence and deepening); the transfer of land, water, minerals and other natural resources to private companies; the promotion of luxury consumption; the export of precious resources abroad; and finally, the sustainability of the present pattern of development and consumption. Other critiques of unfettered growth in general would further enrich their trenchant criticism. In a landmark lecture in 1999, ‘Uneconomic Growth in Theory and Fact’, Herman Daly pointed out that the economy (and its growth) is a subset of a larger ecosystem, which is “finite, non-growing and materially closed”. Perspectives’ completely valid point is that the current high growth results in a reduction in welfare for the underclasses. Daly also says that a point comes by which any additional growth is ‘uneconomic’, i.e. reduces ecosystem services by more than it increases economic services. The US economy, he says, is already past that point.
A critique of growth needs to also go beyond an anthropocentric worldview, and reflect on what its effects are on other species. According to Edward Leakey and Roger Lewin, humans are causing a mass extinction of species, the sixth such to have taken place in the last half-a-billion years. The current extinction rate is unfolding at a thousand to 10,000 times the long-term background rate of species loss (The Sixth Extinction, Doubleday, 1995). The fifth mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were wiped out. And all this before climate change was seen to begin to impact seriously.
Though they do say that “what is going on today is part of a historical process that began about three centuries ago”, this book would also have been enriched by a discussion of the logic of capitalism. Part of this inherent logic is growth at all costs, minimize input costs such as labour and raw material costs, and ‘profit above all, the environment be damned’. Capital therefore tries to make money by commodifying anything, including ‘clean air’. It is why nature “becomes a source of profit and accumulation for private capital”. It is part of this same logic that the colonized has also become the colonizer: a significant proportion of all land acquisition in the world in recent years has happened in Africa, a European activist informed me recently. A good portion of that has been by Indian companies taking over land in North Africa for biofuels, food and flowers!
Finally, what might be the way forward? The Perspective’s book says, absolutely correctly, that people, even the poorest, must have a say in their own development. Industry must produce necessary goods and services needed by a majority of people, generate employment for a large number and affect local environments and livelihoods minimally. This raises a number of interesting issues. One, it assumes a much higher level of equality than currently exists, because inequality immediately promotes wasteful consumption and production. Two, employment generation in a still predominantly agrarian society such as India’s should first and foremost come from agriculture and related occupations like animal husbandry and horticulture, and only then should we look to industry to generate employment. Which means – contrary to much of what is happening today – agrarian occupations need to be made viable.
Three, the 20th century gave us political alternatives, however warped, to capitalist societies but not ecological alternatives. The mounting ecological crises make some talk of ‘zero growth’. Others push for greater decentralization of production and consumption. In Churning the Earth, Shrivastava and Kothari discuss what they refer to as ‘radical ecological democracy’, whose elements include a diversity of alternatives, localization (as opposed to globalization), and bottom-up democratic governance. These are based on the key principles of ecological sustainability and human equity. It is these very concerns that prompt Perspectives to write, “To realize that there are ecological limits to accumulation, and moral limits to consumption, is the need of the hour.” Communities, Commons & Corporations is a significant and timely reminder that part of the way forward is for people to reassert control over the commons, and access it in a manner that is both equitable and sustainable.
~ Nagraj Adve is a Delhi based activist working on issues related to global warming.