Over the last few years, many new projects have met with stiff opposition from local authorities. While many like to believe that this opposition is just visible in left ruled states like West Bengal, this is not the case. Right from Kashmir to Andhra, any new project has been met with opposition.
The way the debate is presented in public discourse is as a debate between development and the environment. This, however, is a very simplistic approach. Having interacted with project affected people and also contractors implementing those projects, what emerges is a very complex set of compromises made on an already shaky ground.
The typical story that is sold to the voting middle class is that people opposing the projects are ‘communists’ and ‘activist’ types who don’t want the country to progress. There is also talk of how outsiders are poisoning the villagers’ minds against the government and its development agenda. What happens on the ground is much different.
The major concern of most villagers is that of rehousing. The past track record of Indian government agencies has not been very encouraging. Near Tarapur, one of India’s major nuclear plants, the houses granted have now been abandoned by the villagers because they are totally uninhabitable. The ceilings leak, the floors are cracked and all this the villagers say happened within the first year of construction. Most of these people have now built their own shanties around the villages. This is just one example. There are many other cases where compensation has been withheld or only partially paid, while the projects built on the acquired land are doing brisk business. It is these past experiences of other villages that scare the project affected.
The reason for shoddy implementation is that the project is executed by one agency while the rehousing is carried out by another, which is why when it comes to accountability, both the agencies defend themeselves by saying the other agency did not help them. This is the typical story of any dealing an Indian has had with the government. This scenario hardly encourages anyone to come forward and ‘sacrifice’ themselves for the development of the nation.
However, the man living in the city is told that these villagers are obstructing his development. It is because of these people that he cannot have more electricity or water or better roads. The urban middle class in most cases buys the argument that for national development, some villager has to ‘sacrifice’ himself. The villager is not against development, but he wants his share of it too. The counter argument of greedy villagers who exploited government grant is also given, however this is a minority.
The typical aspiration sold to the middle class is of breaking the glass ceiling and entering the elite class. In a bid to do that, most of us give a blanket approval for development projects, not even asking if the project is being implemented correctly in the long term interest of not just the project affected, but also ourselves.
While development is necessary, there needs to be more transparency in the implementation process. What the middle class also needs to consider is that someone asking questions about the feasibility of the project is not necessarily opposition. Demanding accountability is not an obstruction to development. It is this misunderstanding between the beneficiaries of projects and the project affected that vested interests take advantage of.