Tuesday, 25 September, 2007

Develop, Displace, Forget The Poor

"What else did you expect me to do?" was her reply when I asked her why she had pulled her son out of school to turn him into a child labourer. She is one of four lakh parents to have done so in Assam alone, all of them displaced in the name of national development and left to fend for themselves. Assam claims to have displaced 4,51,252 people from 3,91,773 acres between 1947 and 2000. The real figures stand at 19,09,368 people from 14,01,186 acres. West Bengal has done the same to 7 million people from 4.7 million acres in the same period. Similar numbers are found in other states .

Leave alone rehabilitation, most of them are not even seen as displaced. Assam has rehabilitated those displaced by just about 10 projects out of 3,000 and West Bengal has partially resettled around 10 percent of them. Fifty-six percent of the displaced in Assam and 49 percent in Bengal have turned their children into child labourers. When that is not possible, women sell their bodies to keep the hearth fires burning. Crime is another option.

Studies indicate that India has deprived some 60 million people of their livelihood in the name of national development. Fewer than 20 percent have been rehabilitated. Since colonial land laws continue and recognise only individual ownership, Assam has not counted the 1 million acres of common land from which it displaced 14.5 lakh tribals, Dalits and others. It has been their sustenance for centuries but the colonial laws declare it State property. The official claim that compensation is rehabilitation is untenable. But the ruling class does not have to worry about them because they are powerless. Tribals are more than 20 million of these 60 million, Dalits are 12 millions and other rural poor are some 10 million. They can be displaced and forgotten.

That is the future trend too. Nandigram and Singur hog headlines but not Navi Mumbai, other SEZs and the 2.26 lakh acres that West Bengal has committed to industries with private profit as the only criterion. One hundred and sixty eight massive dams are being planned in the Northeast. Former PM Vajpayee declared in May 2002 the dams will turn the Northeast into the powerhouse of India. Many more lakhs of people who will be impoverished by them were ignored.

Greater poverty is intrinsic to this Shining India approach. Crime for survival, prostitution and child labour are its result. Is this the only alternative or is development with a human face possible?

Fernandes is director, North Eastern Social Research Centre

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