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Irresponsible activism

Author: Tavleen Singh
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: January 9, 2012
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/irresponsible-activism/735238/0

Last week in the Idea Exchange page opposite was the interview of a man who has been responsible for terminating a project that could have turned India into a hub for aluminum production and brought enormous prosperity to Orissa. I read the interview with N C Saxena carefully to try and understand what he did and was astounded to discover his reason. He said that if Vedanta had provided 500 jobs to local people, the environmental inquiry committee that destroyed its bauxite refinery in the Niyamgiri hills would have taken quite a different view.

The reason why this was so astounding an admission was because it is impossible to believe that someone prepared to invest more than

Rs 11,000 crores in a project should not have been able to take care of 500 jobs. Mr Saxena admits that the adivasis of Niyamgiri were as keen on improving their lives as anyone else. “They also want to see TV and own cell phones, because now they have seen that some of them who are lucky enough to get a job in the factory have a cell phone. They also want to have that kind of life. No one has given a thought to what can be done to improve the lives of the 100 or 500 families there.”

So, we have a situation in which because 500 people did not manage to get jobs in the refinery, an investment of Rs 11,000 crores will go waste and a project that could have helped double the revenue of Orissa stands terminated. Even more worrying is that a member of the committee that recommended the closure of Vedanta’s refinery should admit that they did this despite noticing that the adivasis would have benefited if the project had not been closed. It is important here to note that Mr Saxena is on Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC) so we must assume that he represents a wider consensus at the top.

As someone who visited Koraput and Kalahandi during the drought in 1987 when adivasi women were selling their babies for as little as Rs 40, may I say that the poverty I saw was hideous. The sight of small children dying slowly of hunger on the dirt floor of mud huts is one of the worst things I have ever seen. Things have improved since then but only barely as most adivasis in most parts of India continue to live off what they can make from marginal farming. Their lives are so devoid of even minimum comforts that nobody can hope that they should continue to live forever off their small scraps of land. And, yet there are mighty NGO crusaders these days who want to ‘preserve’ what they call ‘tribal culture’.

They see the hideous poverty and the mud huts of ‘forest dwellers’ as charming and romantic without noticing that the adivasis do not agree with them. This is evident from the fact that it is from the ranks of adivasi forest dwellers that the Maoists recruit their troops. This is evident from the eagerness with which adivasis embrace modernity and the benefits of the 21st century any chance they get. The young adivasi girls who greeted Rahul Gandhi when he went to Niyamgiri to tell them that he was their ‘sipahi’ in Delhi had hairpins in their hair that could only have come from a modern shop.

This brings me to another interesting aspect of the closure of Vedanta’s refinery. Nobody seems sure why it happened. Rahul Gandhi in his speech the day after the refinery was closed said he was happy that the adivasis had managed to save their land. The Environment Minister announced that he was closing the refinery down because it violated forest laws and now we hear from a member of the ministry’s inquiry committee that the problem was 500 jobs. What is really going on?

Whatever it is, the only people who are winning are those who would like to see India’s poorest people remain poor forever and ever. If Vedanta’s project had not been closed and if Posco manages somehow to go ahead with its steel plant, the revenue of one of our poorest states could double. How can this be a bad thing?

Only massive private investment can bring the schools, hospitals and basic living standards that India’s poorest citizens desperately need. For more than sixty years, taxpayers’ money has been poured into government schemes that have served mostly to make some officials very rich. So when a major private investment is delayed or cancelled on flimsy grounds, it is an act of extreme irresponsibility. It is India’s misfortune that this kind of arbitrary action is becoming the leitmotif of Dr Manmohan Singh’s government. As an economist, he knows the irreparable damage being caused. Why does he not stop it?
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