Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pandora vs Orissa

The Cameron film Avatar has overtaken the Cameron-epic Titanic as the highest grossing film ever with global box office receipts of £1.15 billion. (Titanic’s takings had finally petered out £1.14 billion.)

The news has arrived even as I am still digesting the meeting I attended yesterday on how the nexus between the Indian government and international corporations is leading to a plunder of the rich mineral resources of the Indian states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand. The talk was organised by a bunch of activist students of SOAS at the university itself.

So this is what is happening: Mining companies have found a region with mouth-watering minerals in the middle of India. They’d love to get their hands on it. All’s well except for some pesky tribals who have been living there for centuries. Yes, they want development but one that is sustainable and in which they have a say. The corporations think otherwise. Struggle ensues and abuse of the tribal community follows.

Sounds similar? But not quite. Apart from the fact that the Indian tribal communities are not bioluminiscent blue and are evidently tailless - there will be no decisive war between the evil corporation and the innocent tribals (with some timely help from three-horned rhinos tipping the scales in favour of the latter). Cameron made his job easy by taking us to a foreign land inhabited by aliens. The tribes owned that land, and a company from elsewhere wanted to plunder it. It was neat banal binary.

But what we are experiencing in India is more complex. It isn’t just some alien company arriving out of nowhere taking away the lands of the tribal communities. These foreign companies are coming in with the express permission of the Indian government, which technically represents the tribes as well. It has the authority to decide what kind of development it wants for these regions – and it has decided, rightly or wrongly, that industrial development is the way to go. And we cannot deny that other parts of India, other communities, other classes, stand to benefit from this growth (at least in the short-run).

The struggle in India, unlike the one in planet Pandora, is one about different people in the same country having a different vision for development. It isn’t just a question of throwing one or two British corporations out of Orissa and West Bengal. The government will bring in others, perhaps Indian companies, for the job. Will that be somehow better?

The question is not about corporations. It is about what vision of development do different communities and classes of India have, how to make sure that all voices are heard in the discussion, how do we arrive at a consensus, and when the final decision is made who is asked to sacrifice.

Unfortunately, no timely appearance of three-horned rhinos will help us arrive at an answer to this one.


Girish Shahane said...

Also, development that is sustainable and in which tribals have a say is fine activist speak, for who would say, "Actually, I prefer unsustainable development". Thing is, though, that once ore or petroleum comes out of the ground, it's gone forever. In that sense, sustainable development would mean no mining at all, right? It's not like trees, where you can cut one, plant another and keep the cutting at a sustainable level.
As far as having a say is concerned, the people do have a say in elections, and keep voting in criminals like Madhu Koda and Shibu Soren.

SloganMurugan said...

Well, it's not just there in Orissa, etc. It's the story in every place that has mineral or oil wealth.

That story of Avtaar, couldn't have come at a more appropriate time!

globalbabble said...

Girish, yes it is. To be honest, I am baffled by the sustainability question. It brings with huge ecological imbalances, and when it is over all you are left with is flyash. I think it is a question worth examining - what is the cost involved in mining, the real, ecological cost?

To the other question, yes they vote. Which is why I said that the Indian government represents them as well. It is not as simple as they showed it in Avatar.

But then, by that logic, once Narendra Modi is elected - does that mean we should stop questioning his actions and ideas? That what happens between the elections is of no consequence?

I think, West Bengal is a good example. They did throw communist party out, but they also protested the planned development before the elections.

Girish Shahane said...

Question Narendra Modi's ideas, sure; but don't pretend he isn't popular with the people.

globalbabble said...

Hi Girish: in case of Naredra Modi, he is popular with the majority but not the minority in the state. But he is the elected leader. So should we say that his actions and thoughts stand for the minority as well?