The massacre of 76 policemen in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh by the Naxalites is reprehensible. There is no doubt that this use of force is illegal and it is wrong. But, it is also clear that we cannot brush aside the underlying issues of poverty, deprivation and lack of justice that are breeding tension and anger in many rural and tribal areas of the country. We cannot say that these development-related issues are long term, as the Congress party spokesperson has reportedly said, while the immediate task is to annihilate the Naxalites. Because, unless we can fix what is broken here, let us be very clear, there is no real solution at hand.
In the past, I have written about the irony that vast parts of our country that are the richest in terms of minerals, forests and water are, in fact, the poorest in terms of indicators of development and social well-being. We need to ask this question again and again: Why is it that the poorest people live in the richest lands of the country? We have to ask the question so that we can change this.
We know that the Naxalites profit from our collective loot of the resources from these lands. It is from these areas that we get resources for the electricity that lights our houses. But, the people who live in these very areas have no electricity. They should own the minerals or forests and seek the benefits of development. But they do not benefit from the extraction or conservation of natural resources. Instead the policy and design are such that their lands are taken away, their forest cut, water polluted and livelihood destroyed. This development makes them poorer than ever.
But we want to hear none of this. A few years ago, in Raipur (Chhattisgarh), while releasing our detailed report on mining and environment, I saw how intolerant we had become. At the release function, the room was “filled” with members of mining-at-all-costs lobby. They shouted down any voice that spoke of poverty and other problems that mining had brought to the region. The Governor who was releasing the report was visibly caught in a bind. He could not deny our data and analyses. But he was also desperate to brand us insurgents for raising uncomfortable issues.
The next day, the state machinery got even more active. It openly challenged us. But it never presented data on how it had shared revenues that it got from mining with the people. It did not explain how it had controlled the enormous and deadly pollution from the sponge iron factories that encircled the region. It did not also explain why it was allowing the open manipulation and misuse of laws to dispossess people of their lands against their will. It branded as anti-development those who were questioning mining policies and seeking new answers. The next step was to say that we were against the state and on the side of the Naxalites. With us or against us. This is a war syndrome, which cannot buy us peace at any cost.
The challenge is how we can build an economic growth model, which uses the wealth of the region for local development first. The answer is complicated because such a development model would mean listening to people who live on these lands about what they need and want for their growth. It would mean agreeing to the principle that people should have the right to decide if they want mining in their backyard, or want the forests to be cut. It would mean taking democracy seriously.
Once this principle is accepted, people’s protest against mega-development projects will have to be seen in a new light. These are not misguided people (or Naxalites) who are holding up the Vedanta bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa, or the Tata Steel project in Chhattisgarh. These many (and there are many) mutinies will have to be heard and listened to carefully. We cannot keep doing what we want today — brushing aside these concerns in the guise of a “considered” decision taken by an unaccountable environmental appraisal committee sitting in Delhi or somewhere else. We cannot dismiss these voices because we believe we know what is best for them.
The tough part will begin once we accept the principle of local veto over development decisions. On the one hand, it would mean seriously engaging with people to find ways that will benefit everyone. This would mean sharing revenue sought from minerals with people — not the poisoned peanuts we are promising them today. It would also mean changing the priorities of development — valuing the standing forests of the region as the protectors of our water, wildlife and low-carbon future. It would mean paying money directly to local communities so that they can decide to protect the forests, because it brings them development benefits.
But more importantly, listening to the voices of dissent will mean reinventing development. We will have to accept that we cannot mine all the coal or the bauxite or the iron ore lying in forests. We will have to make careful choices concerning how we can use less of our minerals for more growth. We will have to do more with less. The lesson the poor are teaching us is: walk lightly on earth. Let us not answer them with bullets.