The Indian government recently rejected plans by the London-based mining group, Vedanta, to extract bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills in the eastern state of Orissa. This story made the international news headlines, even being compared to director James Cameron's recent blockbuster film "Avatar", as the mining company came into direct conflict with a few thousand tribals who call the hilly region home. Citing concerns that this would affect the tribal people's right to their way of life and the ecosystem in the region, the Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, also said the project had violated India’s environmental protection laws.
Curiously, a day later, in a different part of the country, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India's Hindi-speaking heartland, thousands of farmers marched more than a hundred kilometers to the nation's capital, gridlocking Delhi. This was to protest against a putative takeover of their land by the state government to build important new infrastructure, the two hundred kilometer Yamuna expressway from Agra to Delhi, budgeted to cost over $2 billion. The farmers have been demanding more compensation for land that the state government has been trying to acquire, stating that what they are being offered is half the market price of about $20 per square metre.
While the two episodes have a superficial similarity, they point to fundamentally different issues. The farmers in U.P. were not objecting to the acquisition of their land per se; they simply were asking for a fair price for it. The statutory authority under which the Indian central and state governments expropriate land is a relic of British colonial days, and allows government to take over land with little or no compensation. A proposed new law, which would require government to pay a fair market price for land and compensate the displaced in other ways, has been languishing in Parliament for several years. Seen in this light, there is nothing especially radical or subversive about the farmers' demands: they simply don't want to be short changed by the state government, but, if the right amount of cash is on the table, are willing to play ball.
Now, shift about two thousand kilometers east to the land dispute in Orissa. It is striking that the tribals were not holding out for better compensation: they simply didn't want to be part of the system, period. To them, the hills are sacred, that is where they live, and no amount of money would ever be enough to get them to leave. Money, in fact, is beside the point for them. The analogy with "Avatar" is apt.
The Vedanta dispute points to a far more fundamental fissure in the modern development paradigm: what happens when modern economic progress runs up against a totally different civilization and culture that wants no part of it, but which sits atop resources that may be vital to the development project itself? Bauxite, after all, is the most important of the ores which when processed become stainless steel, a key input for manufacturing industry, a central driver of growth in developing countries whether India or elsewhere.
What results is a "clash of civilizations", to borrow a phrase used in a different context by the late Samuel P. Huntington. The value systems of the two worlds are simply incommensurate: the modern economy is offering money as compensation to the tribals, who in turn have no value for money or what it can buy, and simply want the land they live on and don't want to be disturbed. There is no possibility of gainful exchange here, to put it in economic terms.
In this particular case, the Indian government supported the tribals, and has blocked the project. Not that we should necessarily impute a great deal of virtue to this decision: the Congress-led central government has an eye to state elections, and standing up for the tribals, and against the state government of Orissa, led by a different party, may be good electoral calculus. Nor should we forget the threat of Maoist rebels, known in India as Naxals, who are an ever-present danger in Orissa as, indeed, they are, in about a third of the country's districts. The Naxals, latter-day Robin Hoods, stand up for the poor and dispossessed, and are challenging government authority in a wide swathe of central and eastern India. While the Indian government's hawkish Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, is pressing for an aggressive strategy to root out the insurgency, other elements within the Congress Party are pushing for a more tempered approach. Most notably, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former minister in the government and self-proclaimed Marxist, has repeatedly pointed out the economic underpinning of the Maoist insurgency, and the fact that it it is no accident that it has taken root and thrives in the most background regions of the country, amidst those that have been left largely untouched by the growth miracle that has led to India's recent skyrocketing growth rates and booming stock and property markets, to say nothing of its IT industry known worldwide.
All of this is a timely reminder that modern economic development, while empowering those who benefit from it, simultaneously disenfranchises others who don't share its capitalist and market-oriented premises. The farmers in U.P. will probably get a little more money for their land, and should make out OK in the end. The tribal people in Orissa have been spared, for now, but it's only a matter of time before another mining company encroaches on their land, with or without the government's permission, or before someone else discovers even richer reserves of bauxite somewhere else in the country, and clamours for mining rights, whether or not someone happens to live on the land. And so development marches forward.