It's no aberration that the first anniversary of the return to power of the United Progressive Alliance should coincide with a tsunami of grassroots protests: From Orissa to Maharashtra, and from Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand, through tribal Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
The protests represent popular resistance to UPA-2's industrialisation and mining policies and its zealous promotion of gross domestic product growth as an end in itself. Central here is the displacement and dispossession of vulnerable people.
The government's response to the protests has been to unleash repression by arresting their leaders and firing upon peaceful protesters. This is what happened last week in Orissa's Jagatsinghpur district where large-scale demonstrations were organised against land acquisition for a giant steel plant of the South Korea-based company, Posco. The police imposed prohibitory orders, beat up protesters and burnt down homes in nearby villages.
Although Orissa has a non-UPA government, its approach towards the Posco project is similar to the UPA's. Indeed, it's even more ardent in pushing it than the Centre, which at least insists that Posco obtain proper environmental clearance.
Lest it be thought that the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti leaders are extremists, they belong to the Communist Party of India which has sustained the agitation for years. The Samiti has been on a dharna near Paradip port since January 26. Recently, even the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party joined or backed the protests. Last week, the police arrested CPI MP Bibhu Prasad Tarai and two Congress leaders 'as a preventive measure', opened fire, and injured more than 100 protesters.
The Orissa police, never known for efficient law enforcement, have a record of brutality in dealing with movements which dare to oppose powerful interests. An example is the notorious firing at Kalinganagar in Jajpur district on January 2, 2006, in which 14 people were killed when agitating against a Tata Steel plant. Many lost their limbs to the landmines planted by the police -- an indefensible use of a deadly weapon against the civilian population. On May 12, the police again opened fire, killing one.
As the Orissa events unfolded, Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district saw a powerful march through several villages against another destructive UPA-promoted project -- a nuclear park, with six reactors, each of 1,600 MW, to be built at Jaitapur. Areva, the French company that is building them, is under interrogation on safety issues by the French nuclear regulatory agency.
Areva's design for the first reactor contracted in Western Europe after Chernobyl (1986), at Olkiluoto in Finland, has fallen foul of Finnish, French and British regulators. The plant has been delayed by three-and-a-half years and is 60 percent over budget. Welding has been frozen since last October. If the project fails or is abandoned, it will sound the death-knell of the nuclear industry in the developed world.
Yet, oblivious of all this -- and of the generic problems with nuclear power -- the government is promoting the Jaitapur project with memorable zeal. Although no contract has been drawn up, no project report prepared, and the site hasn't received environmental clearance, the government is acquiring land under the emergency provisions of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894.
The people oppose the project on grounds of safety and loss of land and livelihoods and have torn up the cheques they received 'in compensation'. They don't want to live in the vicinity of six big nuclear reactors, each larger than the Chernobyl plant, which will routinely emit radioactivity, and which could all undergo a catastrophic accident poisoning thousands of square miles.
Unless the government rethinks its ill-conceived plan to build nuclear parks at coastal sites -- including Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal -- a nasty confrontation will assuredly occur. This raises issues of great gravity: Does local democracy, for which the UPA claims much credit, going back to Rajiv Gandhi's 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, have any meaning?
Should the government impose a self-evidently hazardous project on a population that doesn't feel secure or comfortable with it? Should it persist with an energy technology that has proved costly and high-risk, and is declining the world over, when it has no agencies that can cope with emergencies, especially a deadly radioactivity crisis?
Similar questions are being posed by millions of people who oppose the gigantic loot of public resources called Special Economic Zones, petrochemicals investment regions, and projects in extractive industries like coal, bauxite, metallurgy and cement. No such project goes unopposed.
The government and the promoters cannot convince the people that their objections to livelihood destruction are irrational or unwarranted, that they will receive adequate compensation, and that alternative employment will materialise.
Independent India's experience with 'development' projects has been dismal: Displacement of 45 million, the population of more than three-fourths of the world's nations, with little rehabilitation. Even the Supreme Court has expressed concern at such violations of the right to life and asked that the Land Acquisition Act be revisited.
In a just-released judgment concerning Bangalore, it says that land acquisition unrelated to public welfare is indefensible and causes trauma. 'It also creates hostility, mutual distrust and disharmony among the villagers, dividing them along the lines of "those who can influence and get their land deleted" and "those who cannot". Touts and middlemen flaunting political connections flourish, extracting money... Why subject such a large number of citizens to such traumatic experience?'
Underway in India today is a process of 'enclosure' of land, similar to what happened in Western Europe three centuries ago, but much more compressed. This comes on top of a prolonged agrarian crisis, a 10-kg decrease in monthly per-capita foodgrain consumption over three decades, and the suicides of 200,000 farmers since 1997 -- historically unprecedented anywhere.
Small-holder agriculture has become unviable in two-thirds of India. Farm incomes haven't kept pace with rising input costs. Agriculture has become more energy-, water- and capital-intensive and suffers from falling public investment, monoculture and high water use, rising imports, and collapse of the agricultural extension system. It has also run up against major ecological barriers.
Instead of addressing these issues, and promoting equitable growth and defending vulnerable livelihoods, the UPA is blindly pursuing neo-liberal approaches that have proved bankrupt the world over and are creating havoc domestically.
Unless it quickly corrects course, the UPA will betray the promise of inclusive growth which was critical to its election victory in 2009.
Worse, it will get into a hostile confrontation with underprivileged people, undermine their subsistence, further distort growth processes and aggravate inequalities and disparities, thus sharpening social conflict. This is the surest recipe for breeding Naxalism where it doesn't exist and exacerbating social divisions.
Regrettably, not many UPA leaders are prepared to demand a policy review and correction along radical lines. Some Congress leaders like Mani Shankar Aiyar and Digvijay Singh, and sometimes Rahul Gandhi, express genuine concern about persistent destitution, rising income inequalities, and the state's loss of popular credibility.
Sonia Gandhi has decided to re-establish the National Advisory Council, which might produce good ideas on food security and healthcare. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act too has had a positive impact.
However, this is not nearly enough. The very content and the direction of the growth process has to change if it is not to remain predatory on the people. Some leaders refuse to go so radical. They are content to promote vigorous GDP growth regardless of its demands on human and natural resources, its origins in sleaze, criminality and dirty deals, and its inequality-enhancing nature.
They believe faster growth will boost state revenues, which the government can target at worthy schemes like the NREGA to help the poor.
This view is not as callous as the widely discredited 'trickle down' approach. But it is badly flawed. It underestimates both the severity of the destruction wrought by neo-liberalism and the double injustice of further punishing and dispossessing people who live in wretched deprivation and are already at the bottom of the heap in this super-hierarchical society.
It is not enough that the fruits of rapid growth are used to redress problems which are often made worse by the growth process itself.
Growth, or rather development, must become inherently inclusive, immanently equitable and based on people's participation and consent. Sustainable development must be need-based, green and gender-just. It must not negate the worthy ethical imperative of defending the rights and interests of the poorest of the poor -- not even temporarily.
The Congress must debate these issues. Or, it will drift into the same policy frame that eventually brought about the Bharatiya Janata Party's election defeat. Regrettably, this decade is probably the first time that the Congress is in power without a left-of-centre pressure group or think tank within, like the Nehru Forum or the Young Turks, which is sorely needed.
This is a void that far exceeds the government's many political management errors, which have attracted all the media attention as UPA-2 completes its first year in power. The NAC could bring progressive inputs into policy-making if Sonia Gandhi broadens its membership and shifts its ideological centre of gravity leftwards.