Dancing Around the Flame

ON CHRISTMAS Eve, 2010, an Indian court sentenced Binayak Sen, a doctor who has for decades given medical care to indigenous people in forests of central India, to life imprisonment for sedition and conspiracy. Sen’s real crime was to have investigated and publicized the forced expulsion, accompanied by killing, rape, torture, and house-burning, of about 350,000 aboriginal villagers in a state-sponsored campaign against Maoist guerillas. Months earlier, policemen had shot dead Maiost leader Cherukuri “Azad” Rajkumar, who had emerged from his jungle hideout to engage in peace talks with the Indian government; a journalist accompanying him was also killed. The close range from which the shots were fired point to murders in custody. (According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the Indian administration reports the deaths, in police and judicial custody, of more than 1,500 prisoners each year, and the number has increased steeply in recent years.) In October 2009, when security forces razed the village of eighteen-month-old Katam Suresh, they chopped off three of his fingers and killed his mother, grandmother, grandfather, and eight-year-old aunt. His twenty-year-old father was saved by being away. But this January, possibly because their names had featured in a court petition filed by human rights workers, the boy and his father were taken away by the police. Both remain missing.

Why is the world’s largest democracy “killing its own children,” as a judge on India’s Supreme Court recently remarked? There are several answers, but when it comes to the jungles of central India, most observers point to a 2009 statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “if [Maoist] extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment.” Almost all of India’s Maoist guerillas are indigenous people who shelter in rugged terrain that is rich in minerals and water. As the state fights them back, it appears to be clearing the land of residents in order to access these resources—and motivating ever more of the dispossessed to join the insurgency in the process. The real reason behind India’s worsening human rights record could be the investment boom and resource rush that underpin its explosive economic growth.

Last year, for instance, the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh—one of the worst human rights offenders—posted a growth rate of 11.5 percent, leading its chief minister to boast that the state was on the “fast track of progress and prosperity.” The state’s officials have in the past decade signed at least 117 MoUs, or Memoranda of Understanding, with national and international companies. These deals, almost all of which involve the extraction, processing, or use of coal, iron, limestone, and other underground sources of wealth, constitute an investment of about $40 billion. (Chhattisgarh’s gross domestic product is $13 billion, deriving mainly from minerals.) In addition, De Beers, Rio Tinto, and BHP Billiton are fervently prospecting in the state for diamonds, half the deposits of which are in areas held by insurgents. At least $145 billion in investments has been pledged to India’s Maoist-affected areas as a whole, almost all of it for mineral-related industries.

Because of the Maoists, however, “no one’s able to tap those resources,” an unnamed source at the prime minister’s office complained in 2008. Indeed, all over India—including in places where the Maoists have no presence—the natives are refusing to move over. According to the New York Times, the hurdles in accessing land and other natural resources, as well as difficulties with environmental regulations, led to foreign direct investment in India falling by 27 percent in late 2010 (compared with the same period the previous year). Under immense pressure from industrialists, investors, and, no doubt, his political superiors, India’s environment minister recently reversed his earlier stance and granted clearance for construction of a massive Korean steel and port complex on the eco-sensitive coast of Orissa state. The project would endanger the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families—who have vowed to continue the protests that have already stalled the plant for six years.

In their effort to gain control, corporations are colluding with the state in subverting democratic processes. A 2009 draft report from India’s ministry of rural development noted that the Salwa Judum, an irregular militia sponsored by the Chhattisgarh government that has used terror tactics, including murder, to force villagers off their land, received its initial funding from two companies that were planning to set up steel plants in the region. (That segment of the report was expunged, without explanation, from the final version.) Last year, after the Supreme Court ordered the Chhattisgarh government to rehabilitate the displaced villagers, the authorities made no move to comply. On the contrary, they bulldozed the ashram of a Gandhian social worker, Himanshu Kumar, who had been facilitating the return of refugees to their former homes. Police also arrested his colleague, indigenous activist Kopa Kunjam, under what Amnesty International describes as “politically motivated murder charges.” (Kunjam remains in prison, where he was badly beaten.) Across India’s mineral belt, members of groups that oppose the appropriation of their territories are being assaulted, bought, incarcerated under false police charges, shot, or, in one case, run over. Just as alarming, the Indian government has launched a massive paramilitary operation in the Maoist-inflicted forests of five states (including Chhattisgarh), reportedly involving fifty-seven battalions of heavily armed troops. “It’s a war situation,” attests Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at Delhi University, and the last five years of fighting has cost more than 10,000 lives (by the official count).

Since independence, India has displaced tens of millions of people, most of them aboriginals, from their pristine environments in order to build mines, dams, defense outposts, and even ecotourism parks—and the expulsions have accelerated in parallel with the economy. Of about 800,000 hectares of forests officially given over to industry since 1976, for instance, more than half were diverted after 2001. In Chhattisgarh, two thirds of the forest thus converted has been used for mining. The state has also privatized six rivers—that is, granted substantial rights to their water to power plants and other enterprises—in the process fencing off thousands of villagers from their only water source and forcing migration. There is no accounting for what becomes of the refugees of this economic growth. “Large sections of the Indian people are dependant for their survival on access to common-property resources,” Binayak Sen had noted in a 2010 interview. “Dispossession amounts to pushing them off a platform on which they can stay alive.”

GROWTH IS essential to poverty reduction, according to mainstream economists, and indeed the World Bank reports that the percentage of Indians living on less than $1.25 a day has come down from 60 in 1981 to 42 in 2005—just as India registered its highest-ever growth rates. Strangely, however, Indians are as hungry as ever, and many are more so. The United Nations World Food Program found that the prevalence of undernourishment in India has not changed in twenty years; whereas other evidence indicates that among the poorest, malnutrition is on the rise. Economist Utsa Patnaik of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi notes that in the eleven fiscal years between 1993 and 2004, the percentage of Indians who failed to access 2,200 calories a day went up from 59 to 70, whereas the percentage of those who could not get even 1,800 calories a day went up from 20 to 25. (A resident of rural India is commonly considered poor if he or she cannot access 2,400 calories per day.) A 2005 survey of 1000 aboriginal households in the states of Jharkhand and Rajasthan found 99 percent to be enduring chronic hunger, 33 percent living in semi-starvation, and 5 percent to be starving An overwhelming 91 percent said that their food security had weakened in the previous two decades—even as the number of (dollar) billionaires in India crossed the fifty mark. Hunger deaths are routinely reported.

One reason for the dissonance between growth and hunger is that neoliberal economists, and the politicians they advise, fail to account for the loss to rural livelihoods from environmental degradation and privatization of the commons. For instance, critics estimate the ecological cost of aluminum ore extraction—from mountaintops blown off, forests and watersheds decimated, and fields and rivers polluted—to be at least $1,000 a ton, all of which is borne by locals. But aluminum companies have prevailed upon India’s leaders to sell its ore for about $1.40 a ton. (The international average price for the ore is $30 per ton.) Of twenty-odd aluminum-capped mountains in the states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, mining is planned or has started on all but one (which, being home to a picturesque tribe, the Dongria Kondh, was reprieved by an international campaign). Forced off territories they have inhabited for thousands of years, no longer able to access resources from the wild, and burdened with disease from their newly contaminated environments, indigenous people are finding they have to buy ever more of their basic necessities—just as the cost of food is escalating.

In the eastern state of West Bengal, for instance, quarries that produce stone chips for road construction have encroached on the land of the indigenous Santhals. Villagers can earn more cash than before by laboring in the quarries and rock crushers—which registers in official accounts as poverty reduction. But boulders blasted out of the ground have fallen on huts and fields, wounding and killing the unlucky; dust billowing from crushers has caused lung disease and smothered crops; and cracks induced underground have caused the water table to fall, drying up ponds and wells. The increasing difficulty of garnering tubers, fruit, nutritious or medicinal plants, fish, and firewood from the damaged environs has led to malnutrition, in particular a rash of severely underweight babies. Santhals have invented a name for these offspring of progress: puni.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Gandhi wrote in 1928. “The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” He observed that industrial civilization depends upon enormous inputs of natural resources, acquired for the most part by the ongoing colonization and destruction of more sustainable cultures. But the avowed goal of India’s politicians and business leaders is exactly that which Gandhi dreaded: an urban and high-tech society, fuelled by raw materials from a homogenized hinterland that has been cleansed of traditions, communities, and diversity.

Peoples and cultures are easy to destroy. But for everyone on earth to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyles of the West would require the resources of several earth-like planets: it will not happen. Even so, through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, rich countries are encouraging poor ones to follow in their footsteps—because, for perhaps a generation or two, “development” will continue to extract the natural resources and expand the consumer markets that advanced economies desperately need. “India is not simply emerging; India has already emerged,” President Obama announced to an ecstatic New Delhi audience during his recent visit, and was rewarded with $10 billion worth of orders for American firms. Obama described Gandhi as a source of inspiration, and WikiLeaked cables show that U.S. diplomats are cognizant of pervasive torture by Indian security forces; but human rights appear to have been off the agenda.

“I must not fear if the world today is going the wrong way,” Gandhi once mused in a letter. “It may be that India too will go that way and like the proverbial moth burn itself eventually in the flame round which it dances more and more fiercely. But it is my bounden duty up to my last breath to try to protect India and through India the entire world from such a doom.” In sentencing Binayak Sen, the judges invoked the selfsame law that, nine decades earlier, the British had used to convict Gandhi. If the Mahatma were alive today, he too would be in one of Incredible India’s many prisons.

Madhusree Mukerjee is the author, most recently, of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II (Basic Books).