Caution: Development Ahead

Three books on behalf of those waylaid by certain notions of progress, which see it as the monopoly sector of the state and the playground of the market. 

(The Dispossessed:Victims of Development in Asia edited by Vinod Raina. Aditi Chowdhury and Sumit Chowdhury) 

(The Greater Common Good by Arundhati Roy IndiaBook Distributors, Bombay, 1999)

(Power Play: A Study of the Enron Project by Abhay Mehta Orient Longman. New Delhi. 1999)

The books under review have been written variously by a group of activists, an internationally acclaimed novelist and an energy analyst. The Dispossessed takes the perspective of those affected by the social and environmental ills wrought by mismanaged development; The Greater Common Good is a protest essay on involuntary displacement by a specific water development project; and Power Play is about energy planning in India, and bases its analysis on the Dhabol Power Plant in Maharashtra. There is, however, a common thread binding these works, and that is the question of how the growing needs of changing societies can be met without the attendant social, environmental, political and economic marginalisation.

The Dispossessed brings together case studies documenting the process of victimisation in 10 post-colonial states of Asia as they continue their development race to catch up with the industrialised West. The essays cover wide-ranging issues: industrial disaster, pollution, deforestation; displacement of women, tribals and the vulnerable; structural adjustment programme; and the role of the Bretton Woods institutions. Though widely acknowledged and universally abhorred, the manner in which victimisation takes place during development is still little understood, say the editors in the preface. The book aims to provide some explanation.

Globalisation and its salient features, unrestrained trade and the laissez-faire of investment liberalisation, are the overwhelming signposts of post-industrial society. The market is the dominant entity, which, by character, seeks freedom to profit, and networks are built across nation-states in an attempt to meet the bottomline of profit. In the case of developed countries, social controls are in place and the governments do provide some countervailing contestation to ensure that unjustified profits are not made and human vulnerability not exacerbated. The problem with countries such as those in South Asia is that the framework of safeguards as well as social structure is highly fragmented, while exclusion, insensitivity and rent-seeking tendencies characterise the state.

Take the example of India. Technological innovation and diversification of economy saw industrial growth rate veering around 2.8-3.5 percent till the 1970s (p 72). But the growth was skewed; it neither trickled vertically nor horizontally across the country. Raina et al argue that India of the 1970s was simmering with disenchantment, which led to the emergence of several social and environmental movements espousing the cause of the dispossessed (and the imposition of the Emergency in 1975 was a logical reaction from the immensely powerful state) (p 72). Yet today, despite two decades of vigorous campaig ing, the reliance is ever more on a market-driven solution to development than going up on the social learning curve.

The compendium provides a critique of globalisation, portraying it as a fragmenting force in the region rather than as a unifying one. In South Asia, because both capital and knowledge are monopolised by a few, the liberalisation process may not be even minimally distributive, as it may be elsewhere. The book reinforces arguments that globalisation drives a wedge between the haves and the have-nots with the state courting the market as the only way of gaining on the West. The editors state that, given the existing contradictions, a unitary approach would lead to alienation, resulting in often-violent communal, casteist or ethnic assertions (p 73).

Devastating picture
The bitter reality of marginalisation is more evident in the lack of availability of basic services like water and energy —the general themes tackled by Roy (The Greater Common Good) and Mehta (Power Play). The two authors question the entrenched propensity of the State, its minions and the elite to regard development and social justice as a necessary dichotomy. As Abhay Mehta puts it, "In this country the idea of development is largely specific to a class of population and it is operationally defined and used for the specific class" (p 179). The other sets of people are deliberately excluded, even considered irrelevant, but are made to bear all the externalised cost.

Arundhati Roy comes across as the angry egalitarian who tears apart this notion of exclusion. Her argument is neither a review of the writings on involuntary displacement nor a treatise on water management options, but a literature of protest. Roy is aghast that 30 to 50 million fellow citizens have been involuntarily displaced and the majority of them condemned to the ghetto of impoverishment in the 50 years of independent nationhood — even as the ´democratic´ state marched towards ostensible prosperity. The conviction and compassion with which the Booker Prize-winning novelist has crafted her essay brings home the plight of those involuntarily displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project in central India.

Governments justify involuntary displacement by citing ´the greater common good´, especially in the case of water and energy security. But what can never be forgotten is that, for the displaced, it is a loselose situation. They often get nothing in return—neither land, shelter, drinking water, nor education or health services. What they get, is a feel of the bureaucracy. Roy gives the example of what the involuntary are called in development parlance—"PAP" (Project Affected Person), an acronym that serves to reduce victims into mere numbers.

In South Asia´s inherently asymmetric and fragmented social structures, those at the social and physical margins are deprived of everything, including their values, while the road to development is taken under the auspices of selectively defined prosperity. To Roy, this social asymmetry helps the state become both "judge and jury", reducing the people to chronic fatalists. Can a fellow human be asked, against will, to leave his/her place of living because of particular notions of development and change? "Would you like to trade your beach house in Goa for a hovel in Pahargunj?" (p 39) is Roy´s rhetorical poser, an ethical dilemma that should gnaw at the conscience of the privileged. She exposes the contradictions that arise when a design gets translated into a water management system; her prose cuts through assumptions with the precision of a surgeon´s scalpel. When it comes to the state, the picture is devastating.

Unfortunately, in South Asian countries, the debate is not on why the situation is so, and how it could be changed, but on the size and scale of intervention. The state-led hierarchical solidarity continues to advocate the tested-and-practised-since-colonial-times "hard path" of augmenting supply as the only viable response. With globalisation, the market too has entered the fray, championing the same approach.

Not addressed is the question whether the priority should be to add more supplies by involuntarily displacing citizens from their homes, or whether it should be directed towards creating incentives by plugging the physical and institutional leaks, and generating supply at lower social and environmental cost. Creating incentives requires, among others, honouring the rule of the law within a particular societal context, and a level playing field to allow a healthy and competitive market to emerge, with the strengthening of regulatory and social auditing capacity. The last is particularly critical because responses from the state and the market need to be contested so that the former does not become authoritarian and the latter rapacious.

Admiring Enron
Mehta´s Power Play sets out to do precisely that in the sense he challenges the definition laid down by the state-market combine in the terrain of India´s energy policy. The liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991 led to conceptualisation of fast-track power projects financed through foreign direct investments (FDIs) to meet the growing energy deficit. One such initiative was the 695 MW thermal power project built in Maharashtra by the Dhabol Power Company (DPC), a local subsidiary of the Texas-based Enron Power Corporation. In August 1996, the Government of Maharashtra and the DPC signed a ´renegotiated´ agreement for the supply of about 2000 MW of electricity to Maha-rashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB).

Mehta traces the conceptualisation, development and debates around the project. Ignoring suggestions from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) that the proposed power purchase agreement (PPA) would be against the interest of the MSEB, the 13-day Vajpayee Government ratified the counter-guarantee to the project on its last day in office in May 1996 (p 159). Further, the irrefutable economic critique of the project by the World Bank, which should have sounded its death knell, went unheeded.

DPC secured a highly favourable bargain in the form of a PPA which bypasses the controls put in place by the power administration in India. The payments amounting to about USD 35 billion over the 20-year life of this contract in the form of the binding PPA, according to Mehta, will constitute one of the largest in India´s history.

In the first year of business in 1999, the MSEB bought energy from the DPC at INR 2.54 per unit. Even in the low-demand monsoon season, the MSEB could not use cheaper power from its own and other plants, directly leading to an annual loss of INR 240 million writes Mehta in the Postscript. The implication of such a financial strain is serious because it would only add to the challenges in making the region´s energy supply and distribution sector more efficient. The book presents a critique of Maharashtra state and central authorities rather than an indictment of the producer for securing a most favourable deal for itself. Mehta, in fact, betrays a sneaking admiration for Enron for making off with the contract.

The central lesson that can be drawn from these books is about choice of options, and to choose the one that will meet the needs of energy and water without leading to exclusion and victimisation. The selection of options will naturally raise questions about demand and projection of electricity and water needs in future. And because projections always vary according to who makes them, and given the reality of political power represented there in, assumptions of all projections need to be continuously contested.

The South Asian elite, who inherited the right of swaraj from the British, have not succeeded in their collective endeavour to allow the less-privileged to take advantage of opportunities. Prosperity continues to be selectively prodvided. The three books point to the culpability of the existing political structure and its proclivity for rent seeking. They also re-inforce the philosophy that the policy terrain needs to be continuously challenged if changes are to be meaningful and there is no sliding back. Changes mean democratising, and institution alising social justice. The process, of course, begins with introspectiou howsoever unpleasant that may be for those with entrenched notions of development. Only thus will begin the transition to a less conflictridden future, which is the positive goal of each of these books, which stand out as conscience-stirring documents of social auditing.

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Himal Southasian