The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India cannot shape an industrial revolution by decree or massacre

Piggeries occupied the part of Singapore where we used to live until a stroke of the executive pen banished pigs and pig farmers to another island to make way for a blissful estate of neat bungalows in their own gardens. Similar swift efficiency might have spared Orissa's recent bloodshed, but the necessary conditions ' political acquiescence and the absence of any constitutional right to property ' would be abhorrent to India's ethic.

That makes it even more astonishing that the authority should have been so unprepared for the confrontation as not to have taken measures to cushion the pain of dispossession. The tragedy should give pause to our planners and oblige them to evolve a philosophy of growth that smoothes the inevitably bumpy transition from medievalism to modernity. The success of economic reforms will be judged not by whether they help the rich become richer but by whether they lift millions out of misery.

Without a considered approach, what happened at Kalinga Nagar, and has happened before elsewhere, will happen again, baptizing industrialization with the blood of innocents. Apart from the human cost, ambitious projects, whether steel mills, dams or townships, cannot go ahead without the concurrence of the poor. Major foreign investors like Posco ($12 billion) which needs 6,500 acres and Salim ($10 billion), whose requirement is estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 acres, will note Tatas' retreat from the Gopalpur project after the 1997 Sindhigan firing. Doubts have also been voiced about Tatas' Greenfield project in Jharkand where Britain's Mittal Steel, which signed a memorandum with the state government, is reportedly having second thoughts.

Severing the bond between peasant proprietors and their 'few paternal acres' was just as traumatic in England after the Industrial Revolution, and parliament had to enact some 1,200 enclosure laws between 1710 and 1810. Seven million acres of common land were enclosed during the reign of George III alone, causing intense hardship in the countryside. While 80 per cent of the English depended on the land for a living in 1700, the figure had sunk to 40 per cent a century later. The yeoman class disappeared into the maws of surplus labour in the filth and congestion of factory towns.

But in spite of thousands of English people being barely educated, ill fed, clothed in tatters and squalidly housed, the England that emerged as the 'Workshop of the World' was at the zenith of imperial power. That was because the British empire's vast resources and huge markets overseas sustained global supremacy. Lacking that strength, the Soviet Union ' Dan Quayle's 'Burkina Faso with the bomb' ' soon collapsed.

The world power India hankers for is not reconcilable with more than 30 per cent of the population languishing below the poverty line on less than a dollar a day and another 30 per cent or more struggling along on the equivalent of $2. The high growth of which Palaniappan Chidambaram boasts has brought no joy to 89 million deeply indebted farming households. His government's recent employment generation law was a political gesture, not an economic measure, and the mandatory school meal mocks hunger.

If history is a one-way street on which the juggernaut of industrialization can't be halted, the conflict between man and machine should not beguile India into following the ruthless Australian and American precedents of butchering the sons of the soil. Intensely moving pictures of adivasis with bows and arrows trying to prevent a wall being built or barricading a highway recall Chief Big Foot's desperate heroism at the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890. That battle marked the culmination of 200 years of savage warfare over land and sovereignty. When the curtain finally fell on Native American freedom, the universe had shrunk for a people who had owned and roamed it for centuries to the 56.7 million acres that the Bureau of Indian Affairs holds in trust.

The Shengyou, Dongzhou and Sanshan protests and more than 70,000 other 'incidents involving the masses' indicate that China faces the same dilemma. These mini-Tiananmen Square revolts are attracting more and more protesters as Chinese peasants, like people here, object to their land being swallowed up by ports, factories and townships.

Without romanticizing the situation, those who live off the land must get a fair deal. But it is also worth probing the motives of those who are behind their upsurge. Some non-governmental organizations that have taken up the cudgels are genuinely inspired by a worthy cause. But the adivasi plight is also grist to the mills of Maoist rebels and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The Bharatiya Janata Party cannot decide whether it has more to gain politically from supporting Naveen Patnaik or championing the tribals. Other parties, including the Congress, are similarly assessing vote banks. Greedy to disfigure virgin land with jerrybuilt blocks of flats, West Bengal's builders and developers may have a finger in the pie of resistance to Salim.

Perhaps the Orissa acquisition might have been accepted with greater equanimity if the authorities had paid attention to the suggestion by Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the first adivasi prince of the Catholic church, of first signing memorandums of understanding with the people. An ethical and uniform policy on land acquisition must go hand in hand with a social welfare network to mitigate the short-term cost of liberalization.

Yet, astonishingly for a government that advanced socialism to justify nationalizing everything within sight, and still professes loyalty to the creed, the Indian state has made no attempt to provide a cushion against unemployment, sickness or old age. Nor is there any bridge between inequalities to minimize social tension and political strife. In fact, Indian socialism, whether Congress or Communist, has never been more than a mix of empty rhetoric, disruptive agitation to distract organized labour and absorb its political energies, and inefficient state capitalism.

Confusion and corruption reign in everything connected with land. Supposedly tribal land is often most vulnerable. State governments regularly auction off such tracts to favoured loggers. Even tribals succumb to pecuniary blandishments. The official description of forest has become meaningless in many parts of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Conflict between title-holder and cultivator is common. So are squatters, imposters, land-grabbers and speculators with an eye to compensation. Records are inadequate, incorrect and frequently inaccessible; criminals tamper with them, witness fraudulent 'adverse possession' entries. Under-the-counter cash payments make it difficult to establish property's true market value. Even when sanctioned, compensation is meagre and has to pass through many hands, which must all be greased.

These complexities make the Centre's directive to states to develop a consensus on compensation seem highly idealistic. But man-made difficulties can be removed by man if the political will is there. Any rational policy must identify surplus land or land that can be acquired without causing much distress, examine and where necessary correct records, obtain the agreement of the affected people in advance, and arrive at a comprehensive long-term agreement on compensation. There is no reason why this should be only in cash. Compensation can also include equity in the new undertaking, jobs, housing, medicare and other social benefits. There can be provision to restore unused land (as in Rourkela) or land vacated by closed mines and industries to the original owners. Above all, benefits must go to the right people.

India cannot shape a revolution by decree as in Singapore. It cannot massacre indigenes as Australians and Americans did. Our electoral politics will not allow such clashes to be suppressed as in China. The English example is the closest, provided it includes a consensual approach to avoid the horrors of enclosure as well as practical measures to soften hardship. Ultimately, it is how the multitudes fare that will decide if scientific, technological and industrial progress entitle India to play a role in the Asian century.

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