Social Movements and Development: Some Ideological Issues

The intrinsic nature of capitalism is to draw in an ever larger circle of formations within its scope. This produces serious conflicts over natural resources, particularly in land, and its consequent degradation. Much of the conflict in India which manifests itself as environmental struggle is the predatory appropriation of such resources by capitalism. Big projects have very large impact and therefore have seen bigger struggles. However, the problem of natural resources and ecological degradation  is not limited to big projects — it can be seen also in the activities of the timber mafia and looting of the forest wealth, the use of pharmaceutical companies of tribal population to cull out medicinal plants from the forests, etc. .

 While the conflict over natural resources has produced a number of social movements, they have also thrown up a number of ideological issues which demarcate these social movements from a left position. The social movements such as Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance for Peoples  Movements (NAPM) see themselves as anti-capitalist and anti foreign capital, and seek an alternate path of development — a more decentralised economy with virtually self sustaining village communities. They, therefore, advocate the “small, as beautiful” not as a complement to industrial development but as an alternative.

 Before we develop a critique of such a vision, we must address some of the issues that these movements have raised. After independence, India chose a path of development in which the state  provided the basic infrastructure for industrial capital. Thus, the major infrastructural activities were all carried out by the state. This led to the growth of infrastructure services that had stagnated under the earlier private capital led development under colonial rule. Some of the projects, such as the river valley projects are so large  that they are in any case outside the scope of private capital.

 However, while  the rhetoric for such projects was “development”, the state was really involved with capitalist  development. Therefore, while the people affected were told  that it was inevitable some sacrifices had to be made by a few people for developing the country, the fruits of such development went largely to the capitalist class. What was worse, was those displaced by such large projects, rarely received full compensation for taking over their lands, and their traditional right to the natural resources they had exercised. They were thrown out on to the lowest rung of class society as a pauperised reserve army of labour. As a large part of such displacement was taking place in tribal areas, the expansion of  capitalism over such pre-capitalist formations took a very heavy human toll. The Indian state saw the issue as one of only monetary compensation for building what Nehru called the “temples of modern India” but not one of rehabilitating the people thus affected.

 The social movements which have raised the issue of rehabilitation of the people affected for big projects have generated support among those sections who have seen that the state’s promise on rehabilitation is generally an eye-wash and therefore not to be trusted. The on-going struggle in Narmada  Valley stems from the loss of credibility of the state in its encounter with the people on displacement. However, while   the struggle for rehabilitation has been the driving force of these movements, the movement has articulated an anti-development ideology which needs to be addressed.

 In their view, as development in India in the last five decades have led to increasing inequality, there should  be a moratorium on development itself. Secondly, they regard big projects as the villains of the piece and as the state is closely involved with many of such big projects, such development is viewed as “statist”. Thus their view of the left, who support state as the key supplier of infrastructure as supporting statist development. The third point is that their focus on self-sustaining village economy that should be transformed only by infusion of micro technologies.

 The attack on statist development has become fashionable both from the left and the right. Thus, both the NGO movements and the IMF/World Bank theorists demand a roll back of the state. However, while the Fund/Bank theorists argue that the economic function of the state be handed over to private capital, the social movements demand  that they should be replaced by micro projects. However, in Latin America, the NGOs shifted the focus of the struggle against foreign capital to micro management at local levels. In a larger sense, their attack on the state without defending public assets that had been built by the state, led to the de-legitimisation of the state and made it easier for foreign capital to take over its assets. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Latin America saw the public assets built up over the four decades landing up in the hands of the MNCs. However, it is welcome that recently, the Indian social movements such as Narmada Bachao Andolan have opposed privatising state assets, unlike their Latin American counterparts.

 The demand for a moratorium on development that such movements have raised, stems from the belief that if big projects in tribal areas can be stopped, then the tribal communities there will continue in their current state. As we have already seen, the impact of big projects largely pauperised the tribal population in these areas. However, there are major problems with raising such a demand of a moratorium. One is that the current state of the tribal economy should be preserved is a demand which runs counter to the felt  need of the tribal population for development: they strongly feel that they should have access to education, health-care, etc. The issue here is not one of pauperisation versus a bare subsistence economy and choice between the two, but how to break out of such a choice. The second problem, and this is an immediate one is that in the name of moratorium on development stopping big projects, is not going to save the natural resources that such population is using today. Forests are disappearing as the timber mafia, in collusion with state authorities, are denuding ever larger areas of existing forest cover. Thus, the encounter of capitalism with those using the forest as a means of subsistence, is far wider than a few large hydro-electric projects. By focusing on such big projects, the larger encounter with capitalisation and the pre-capitalist formation is lost sight. Third, the lack of development as demanded, will isolate the people fighting for such a cause from a large part of the people who are struggling for a better quality of life, the majority of whom do not belong to wealthy elite. Electricity, water, telecommunications may create growing inequalities, but stagnation of these services means freezing not only current inequalities but also absolute levels of poverty that is prevalent in both urban and rural India. The fight for a more equitable society can not be remaining at the current level of development while fighting for a more equitable order.

 The dichotomy that many of the social movements see is between the “small” versus the “large”, the “state” services versus “decentralised” services. There is a space for big projects and a complementary space for the small: China for instance is building very large hydro-electric projects as well as 28% of its hydro-electric power from small mini and micro-hydel projects. The state’s economic space, particularly faced with the current on-slaught of global capital, needs to be strengthened. Weakening the state in the name of fighting statism can  be dangerous when the state is far more under attack by a globalising finance capital than ever before. We will address the fallacy of “small” versus “big” as opposites and the concept of a self-sustaining village economy, subsequently, as it can not be done within this one.

 The needs of the people displaced big projects is immediate and can  not be post-poned by an appeal to future development, neither can their current state be romanticised. Marx had said that those areas that are economically backward suffer from the worst affects of capitalist development as well as from their under-development. Focusing on one while neglecting the other, will not help the people who are being dispossessed today.