Talc, the widowmaker of Madarangajodi

A stone crusher used for crushing large blocks of talc in Madarangajodi. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
A stone crusher used for crushing large blocks of talc in Madarangajodi. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

by Arpita Bisht

Madarangajodi is a quaint hamlet in the foothills lining the densely forested Indian state of Odisha with a population of about 195 people living in 54 households.  Small, but neatly painted mud houses line the streets. Villagers collect mud of various colors to adorn the walls of houses, resulting in a series of dwellings with a variety of soothing, earthen colors. Each house has a courtyard and a garden, children play in common spaces, which are ample in the village, and old trees mark the beginning and end of streets. The village has a predominantly tribal population (composed of the Munda, Bhuyian, Milkawan, and Pattron tribes), who have historically been and largely still are forest dwellers.

This idyllic little hamlet, however, hides a harsh tale of exploitation, labor and human rights violations, and contamination. The village is the site of an ongoing environmental justice struggle against a private talc mining company that has operated there for over 15 years, and has resulted in the death of many miners.

Like the ghost town of Delamar, Nevada, nicknamed ‘The Widowmaker’, the deaths of the 45 miners has left 45 widows in the village over the past few years. Delamar, which witnessed a mining boom between 1893 and 1909, became the largest producer of gold within the state until 1909, and contributed significantly to employment generation and economic growth. However, large amounts of silica dust generated from gold mining resulted in the death of a large number of miners from silicosis. The exact number of people that suffered from silicosis remain unknown given the constant migration of people in and out of the mining town. The once flourishing mining colony of at least 1500 people currently lies abandoned.

Madarangajodi, unless stringent and timely action is taken, faces a similar fate. The major difference between the two is that Delamar—being a constructed mining town, enabled workers to have the option of moving back to their original home, whereas Madarangajodi is an old settlement of tribals. Indigenous inhabitants, largely income poor, often have the limited choices of either living in the environmentally polluted and socioeconomically exploitative environments, or moving to larger towns as daily wage laborers and slum dwellers.

This article presents a glimpse into the lives of the victims of environmental injustice due to mining. Although the case may appear to be an isolated event, it is only one small piece in the larger picture of the underbelly of the privatization and ecosystem exploitation-driven growth agenda that is becoming increasingly popular in India.

 

The mining industry in Odisha

The state of Odisha has some of the richest rainforests in India, with significant biodiversity—including endangered mega fauna such as tigers and elephants. Sacred groves of ancient trees dating back to over 500 years, found in various locations around the state, are sites of worship for local communities. Further, these regions are also home to 62 tribes, including 13 Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups—who have unique cultures and who are often dependent on forests and forest produce for livelihood sustenance. Incidentally, Odisha has 16.92% of total mineral reserves of the country—with chromite, nickel ore, graphite, bauxite, iron ore, manganese and coal accounting for 97.37 per cent, 95.10 per cent, 76.67 per cent, 49.74 per cent, 33.91 per cent, 28.56 per cent and 27.59 per cent respectively of the total deposits in the country. As such, the state is a prime location for the mining industry. The villages of the mining rich areas in the region have, over the past few decades, been witness to cases of police brutality, dispossessions, loss of livelihoods, spread of mining mafia, as well as Naxalism—an internal insurgency and a violent manifestation of the struggle against dispossession and often termed the greatest threat to India’s internal security.

Talc mining in Madarangajodi

Talc is a hydrous magnesium silicate and is used in various industries such as cosmetics, food, paper, pharmaceuticals, plastic, paint, coatings, rubber, electrical cable, and ceramics. Large boulders of talc are first broken into smaller pieces and then crushed using mechanical crushers—often generating large quantities of silica dust which disperses in the air during stone blasting and quarrying. This makes the talc mining industry workers extremely prone to lung disease.

Talc mining in the region has had various impacts on the local community and ecosystem. The mine has visibly consumed almost half of the hill nearby. Destruction of forest land, which is a source of livelihood given the dependence on forests of the local tribal communities, has implications on access to food and fuel. As a result of reduced access, villagers are forced to clear new spaces for agriculture and to walk farther for forest produce collection activities. Forests are also closely intertwined with tribal culture, which often means that forest clearing due to mining has impacts on traditional ecological knowledge and alters the patterns of interaction between local communities and forests. However, what forms the core of the environmental justice struggle in the region is the death of over 45 men working in the mine from silicosis.

Silicosis, also known as miners’ disease, is the most commonly occurring occupational disease for miners and stone cutters. It occurs as a result of fine particulate silica dust settling in the lungs of workers upon prolonged exposure without adequate protection for a prolonged period of time (between 5-10 years). Silicosis is an easily preventable but progressive disease that has no cure. This means that it gets progressively worse over time and the aim of treatment is limited to the reduction of symptoms and pain. Silicosis paves the way for other respiratory infections and patients often die from diseases such as tuberculosis. In mines with largely non-mechanized mining and quarrying, the chances of silicosis are extremely high.

However, prevention of the disease is not difficult. Procedures such as wet-drilling and provision of adequate safety masks which can capture the fine silica dust are some of the easy measures to be taken to prevent or at least reduce the occurrence of this lethal disease. And yet various factors such as income poverty of local residents, lack of alternative livelihood options, monetary and social power wielded by the mining companies, lack of regular checks etc., allows the companies to get away with avoiding both maintenance of safety standards and paying compensation to the affected people and families.

During our time in the village, we were taken into the house of a late-stage silicosis patient. Entering into the dark mud hut, what we saw could only be described as a barely alive, barely human figure. No muscle, no fat, only skin and bones, eyes wide and hollow due to extreme weight loss and malnourishment. The man lay on a bed, incapable of moving, of eating, drinking, or of any motion except occasional violent shivering. The torture he was going through was conveyed by the violent movements of his constantly shaking body, and a repetitive groan emanating from his throat. This man had no healthcare options, no doctors, no medicine, and no sedatives to dull his pain. He lay there in bed, awaiting an agonizing death. He received no compensation and no healthcare from the company that he dedicated over 10 years of his life to. He will leave behind a wife and three young children. He is emblematic of the face of oppression, of exploitation, of unimportant and forgotten deaths, and of the brutality of a system that favors private profit over individual human life.

 

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View of the talc mine from a distance showing the scale of mining operation, the location of agricultural land with cattle, and the appropriation of large section off the top of the mountain due to mining operations. The village is located at the foothills of the hill, within the remaining forested land. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

The widows of Madarangajodi

The widows of Madarangajodi appear to have been the worst indirect victims of the mine. Owing to marriage at a young age, most of these women have on average two or three children whose education, nutrition, and healthcare suddenly becomes their sole responsibility. Women, especially those of the older generation, have rarely had access to work outside of the household, thus making it either difficult for them to get jobs, or forcing them to end up working in exploitative jobs. The relatively more financially stable families have the option of engaging in agriculture, but the more financially unstable and income poor are forced into daily wage labor.

These widows receive a small compensation of 1000INR (€13.7) per month by the company and 300 INR (€4.2) per month by the government. Further, the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Generation Act), which guarantees 100 days of paid labor per year to anyone willing to work, has allowed some of these women to get employed in small jobs such as construction of roads, government buildings, or cleaning jobs. However, often repayment of costs of medical care for their late husbands and maintenance of basic livelihood sustenance forces women to put their young children into child labor. Children as young as 8 were employed as daily wage earners in the village—often exploitative.

 

 A mud hut in the village of Madarangajodi belonging to a relatively income poor family which has suffered the loss of the primary earner to silicosis due to talc mining. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

A mud hut in the village of Madarangajodi belonging to a relatively income poor family which has suffered the loss of the primary earner to silicosis due to talc mining. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

One woman who lost her husband to silicosis in 2006 now has the disease; their household conditions forced her to often replace her husband at work once he started falling ill on a regular basis. She has three children aged 8, 10 and 15, all of whom are currently forced to work as daily wage laborers in a nearby village since she is no longer capable of doing any laborious work, let alone grueling construction work in the heat.

Yet another woman, aged 33, whose husband happened to possess agricultural land, now farms to support her two children—a daughter aged 13 and a son aged 7. She breaks down and cries while recounting the horrors of her husbands’ disease, and her struggle to provide children with two square meals, a primary school education and to keep them from being forced into child labor. She describes the years of economic instability, the pressure of protecting her children from hunger, the struggle of protecting her land from outsiders, all the while handling the physical strain of dealing with her husband’s severe illness and soon after the emotional strain of dealing with his death. She has finally, after five years of his death, been able to afford a decent standard of living surviving off agriculture, is able to send her children to school, and has built a small two-room mud house.

 

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Sarojini Kuthia, wife of Keshav Kuthia (died 2006), standing beside her small mud hut. Currently suffering from silicosis due to replacing her husband as a daily wage laborer in the talc mine during his illness to support her family. She has three children: an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old girl all of who are employed as daily wage laborers since she is no longer capable of earning sufficient income to maintain her family. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
Left: Sarojini Kuthia, wife of Keshav Kuthia (died 2006), standing beside her small mud hut. Currently suffering from silicosis due to replacing her husband as a daily wage laborer in the talc mine during his illness to support her family. She has three children: an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old girl all of who are employed as daily wage laborers since she is no longer capable of earning sufficient income to maintain her family. Right: 33 year old Subhashi Munda, wife of Sunia Munda (Died 2011) who has to two children, a 7 year old boy and a 13 year old girl. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
33 year old Subhashi Munda, wife of Sunia Munda (Died 2011) who has to two children, a 7 year old boy and a 13 year old girl. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

Social mobilization and resistance

With the help of a local activist and some lawyers, the widows have been able to shut down the operations of the mining company by bringing the matter to the local court. As of now, about 29 court cases against the mining company have been filed by the women. However, the threat of the mining mafia looms large in the areas, often preventing them for pursuing, and sometimes forcing them to withdraw cases. For instance, on the day that we visited the village, death threats were immediately communicated to us, issued presumably in order to discourage any interventions by outsiders, and to prevent the publication of the piece in media.

 

The need for alternatives

Natural resources have historically formed the basis of the socioeconomic system. Whereas pre-industrial economies relied on terrestrial natural resources by using forest products, agriculture and surface water for livelihood sustenance needs, the current economic system relies on an expanded base of sub-terrestrial resources for sustenance. From groundwater to fossil fuels, metallic and non-metallic minerals—it is largely dependent on resources, often extracted in scales that have resulted in ecological degradation at the local, regional, and global level. This comes at the cost of ecosystems—either on the source-side (e.g., in the form of resource extraction) or sink-side (e.g., in the form of ‘filling’ of ecological sinks such as oceans)—evidenced by the fact that 15 out of the 24 ecosystem services quantified by the MEA are already being degraded or seeing unsustainable rates of extraction.

Since sub-terrestrial resources are not evenly distributed within the earth’s surface, specific areas with large volumes, high concentrations, and relatively pure forms of minerals tend to suffer most from exploitation. As indicated by the concept of ‘resource curse’, such regions do not often benefit directly from the appropriation of these resources. In fact, many mineral-rich regions tend to suffer the most in terms of other sectors such as education, healthcare, environmental and ecological indicators, and alternative income generation opportunities. Further, these locations are often the site of environmental injustices occurring from the imposition of negative environmental and social externalities upon local people and communities, which are increasing in frequency across the world.

Socioeconomic progress through access to electricity, sanitation, medical and healthcare facilities, and education are certainly necessary for large sections of disadvantaged populations in India, and in other parts of the world. However, looking beyond the rhetoric of pursuit of growth for the poor, there is an urgent need to examine how the real costs and benefits of economic growth are being distributed. The village of Madarangajodi, some could argue, is a small case with respect to number of victims, given the benefits of the talc mine to economic growth and industrial development in the larger context. However, the growing incidents of similar such cases of environmental injustice taking place across India highlight the urgent need to question a system which incentivizes large-scale ecosystem degradation, livelihood destruction, and associated human rights violations for the benefit of fictitious growth for the poor, and real growth for the already advantaged elite minority.

What is needed instead is a political economic system that ensures ecologically viable progress for the vast majority of the marginalized people across the country. This is not only possible, but very much practical, as has been evidenced by the hundreds of successful grassroots and community initiatives in India documented by the organization Vikalp Sangam— ‘the coming together of Alternatives’ in India. Alternatives exist and must be explored if we are to transition into a socially, economically equitable society with a sustained ecological base.

Arpita Bisht is a Doctoral Scholar studying biophysical expansion of extractivism and related socio-ecological conflicts, ecological degradation and human rights violations in India. She is interested in exploring linkages between, and implications of, social mobilization on unsustainable patterns of extractivism. Her research interests also include anthropological studies of indigenous and tribal communities with a special focus on the pluralistic conceptualization of nature as God, and on the nature of human-nature interactions in these cultures.

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Hydro power projects as a resource curse

Indian Buddhist monks and nuns attend a special prayer session 'Avalokesteshvara Initiation' with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama at Yid-Gha-Choezin in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state, on November 10, 2009. The Dalai Lama held a mass audience with tens of thousands of devotees on a "non-political" visit to a region near India's border with Tibet that has drawn shrill protests from China. AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA (Photo credit should read DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Buddhist monks and nuns attend a prayer session with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state, on November 10, 2009.  Source: AFP PHOTO/Diptendu Dutta.

by Soumik Dutta

On May 2nd, 2016, two people, including a Buddhist monk, were killed when police fired at a crowd of protestors in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state bordering China—injuring ten others. The protest was sparked by the arrest of Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk active against mega power projects in the Tawang district.

Anti-dam protesters in Arunachal include various student bodies, environmental groups, and civil society organisations. This January, hundreds of Buddhist lamas joined protests in Tawang, a smaller district in the province, to say no to large dams in the ecologically, culturally and strategically sensitive area. Various Indian national level media outlets reported the Tawang protests, and people’s Facebook news feeds were abuzz with the Tawang firing.

At the root of the protests are changes to India’s energy policies, said to be crucial for the country’s economic development. India’s National Hydro Power Policy of 2008 had identified a total capacity potential of 1, 48,701 MW of hydropower in the country, of which 50,328 MW was in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Of these, the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro project 80% of the construction of which has been completed has been stuck since December 2012 following massive protests in downstream Assam.

At the root of the protests are changes to India’s energy policies, said to be crucial for the country’s economic development.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has signed several Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with various companies for over 100 big and small hydropower projects in the state, and 13 of these with a total installed capacity of 2791.90 Mega Watts (MW) are in Tawang. The abundance of rivers in the Himalayas and the nation’s ever-growing demand for power propelled the government of India to envision a national hydro power policy that would exploit the vast hydro power resources of Himalayan states like Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh.

Energy is crucial to the economic development needs of every nation. Hydro power, which was considered clean energy with very negligible impact, has however turned out to be quite the opposite. Often, projects have socio-cultural impacts on communities dependent on the river and often have disastrous environmental results. In many cases, the myth about hydropower being cleanest and safest is turning out to be untrue. Human lust for more economic development and the consequent need for more power has created a situation where water, the most abundant natural resource, has become a bane—a resource curse.

The Arunachal firing is a case in point. Many other states in India have witnessed similar protests and ruthless oppression by the government. In fact, when it comes to hydro power projects globally, a politician-corporate development nexus that results in the oppression of civil protests has become a common scenario. International organizations, politicians, investors, and developers are uniting to participate in the systematic plunder of the most abundant natural resource, water, in the garb of economic and sustainable development of nations.

 

Sustainable energy or environmental conflict?

Hydro power is often put forward as a clean, sustainable form of energy. In the case of India’s Himalayan states, there are both public and private benefits. Apart from the incentive of generating revenues from sale of hydro power, the certified carbon reductions (CERs) from the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has worked as a strong factor for both the private project developers and the government for pursuing hydro power projects.

But NGOs like the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) are of the opinion that these proposed and upcoming hydro power projects would adversely impact the fragile Eastern Himalayan ecosystem, which is also a seismically vulnerable zone that has experienced several major earthquakes over the past few decades.

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Source: SANDRP

On April 7th, in response to a petition filed in 2012 by the SMRF, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environment clearance granted by the Indian environment ministry for the $64 billion Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in Tawang’s Zemingthang area. The NGT asked for new impact assessment studies and public hearings for local people.

The NGT also noted that the project promoted by the steel conglomerate LNJ Bhilwara Group did not consider its impact on the habitat of the endangered black-necked crane, which is endemic to the region. The bird is rated “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species and is listed in schedule 1 in India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

The black-necked crane also has significant cultural value to communities in the region. “We connect it with the sixth Dalai Lama who was from Tawang,” said Lama Lobsang Gyatso, the general secretary of SMRF, speaking to Uneven Earth. “He wrote poems on the bird. Apart from local sentiments, the bird has been labelled endangered by law. The Bombay Natural History Society selected Zemingthang [an area within Tawang] as an important bird area for this reason.”

As a result of its activities, the SMRF became unpopular with the government, which branded it as anti-development, leading to the subsequent arrest of its leader and the police firing.

As a result of its activities, the SMRF became unpopular with the government, which branded it as anti-development, leading to the subsequent arrest of its leader and the police firing. Undaunted, after his release on bail, Gyatso’s SMRF, along with another NGO, 302 Action Committee, submitted a memorandum to the deputy commissioner of Tawang demanding a probe by central bureau of investigation(CBI) New Delhi into the May 2nd killing at Tawang. The state government had constituted a magisterial inquiry and suspended several police officers involved in the incident.

Gyatso and his associates reiterated that if CBI investigation into the incident is not done, they will resort to demonstrations in front of the United Nations office New Delhi, apart from protest rallies in Itanagar and Tawang.

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Affected Citizens of Teesta raising awareness against the dam projects on the Teesta river in Sikkim, another northern state. Source: ACT.

Cultural genocide: Sacred Buddhist River in peril in Sikkim

Protests against hydro power projects across India are not new. In Sikkim, communities have been protesting against the Rathong Chu hydropower projects since the mid-nineties, when the Sikkim Democratic Front Party (SDF) government, under Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, had decided to go ahead with a proposed 30 MW hydropower project on the Rathong Chu river, despite tremendous pressure against it, mainly on religious grounds.

Rathong Chu is considered to be a ‘sacred’ river according to Neysol and Neyig Buddhist texts, the water of which is used even today for an annual Buddhist festival – Bum Chu, at the Tashiding Monastery. This has been an important Buddhist tradition since the time of the erstwhile Chogyals (Kings) of Sikkim from the Namgyal dynasty.

Eventually in 1997, under scathing criticism of infringement on cultural and religious rights of Buddhist minorities, the Chamling government decided to scrap the project. Ironically, the same Chamling-led SDF government allotted another project on the Rathong Chu river, a little further downstream, in the year 2006. In fact, the project capacity now was enhanced from 30 MW to 97 MW! While the earlier project was called the Rathong Chu HEP project, it was now rechristened the Tashiding Hydro Power Project.

“We will not stop until we are able to stop attacks on Buddhist religious sites in the name of development.” -Tseten Tashi Bhutia, of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee.

But local groups continue to fight against these proposals. “We will not stop until we are able to stop attacks on Buddhist religious sites in the name of development”, said Tseten Tashi Bhutia of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), an NGO fighting against the Tashiding and Panan projects, speaking to Uneven Earth.

As part of these protests, Sikkim witnessed the longest indefinite hunger strike in the province’s history. The action was called on 20 June 2007 by the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), an NGO formed to fight the government’s decision to build seven large-scale hydroelectric projects within the ancestral lands of the indigenous Lepcha community. Although the Lepcha are also found in other parts of India and in Nepal, around 86 percent of their 9000-strong population resides in Dzongu.

The Dzongu area was traditionally known as Myal Lyang in Lepcha language or Beyul Demazong in Bhutia – the latter meaning ‘land of sacred and secret treasures’ and the former meaning, essentially, paradise. It was here that, according to legend, the Lepcha god created the first Lepcha man and woman from the sacred snow of the mighty Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga)—the world’s third highest peak, which the Bhutia and Lepcha revere to this day as a protective deity.

In fact, within the core area of the proposed Panan hydroelectric project (300 MW) are a host of sacred sites: the Kagey Lha-Tso Lake, the Drag Shingye caves, and the Jhe-Tsa-Tsu and Kong-Tsa-Tsu hot springs, which are said to be endowed with healing properties. Indeed, the entire northern district of Sikkim has numerous such ‘treasures’, each of which was blessed by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the patron saint of Sikkim. Panan is one of the more disputed projects proposed for Dzongu – an area not only sacred but also falling dangerously close to the Khangchendzonga National Park, an area rich in flora and fauna.

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Source: Save The Teesta

The hydro bubble is bursting in India

Hydro-power projects are often proposed as a tool for profit generation, local economic development, and a renewable, sustainable source of energy generation. However, this win-win situation is turning out to be a nightmare of sorts with most of the ‘clean’ energy projects in these states failing to take off after several years of having signed the MoU with state governments. In many cases, the registration process they followed flouted the CDM norms, with project design documents often filled with blatant lies.

This is then coupled with delayed projects accruing huge debt—liability burdens which are being passed on to the respective states. After almost a decade of signing their MoUs, both the companies as well as the respective governments have accrued huge debt burdens due to inordinate delays in implementation with pretext after pretext—making many projects economically unviable due to the present day inflation and market rate of interest.

The returns on investments are bad, production cost high, and sale price of a unit of power low.

In the financial year 2015, India generated 1048.7 Billion Units (BU) of electricity, out of which only 133 BU was from the hydro power projects. Out of the 1048.7 BU electricity produced, 90% is sold through long-term power-purchase agreements, while the rest is traded on the short-term spot market. It is here that corporate power producers will have to make their profits.

But Sikkim, with an annual state budget of $315.86 million, has equity participation worth $230 million. Simply put, it took on huge debt to buy equity and with project delays and abandonment, leading to spiraling burdens that are then being passed on to the people. This has resulted in an absurd situation, where the production cost of one unit of electricity has become more costly than the sale price.

In March 2016, India’s ministry of power intervened to restore three stalled power projects in Sikkim; Panan (300 MW), Teesta VI (500 MW), and Rangit IV (120 MW) with total installed capacity of 920 MW. In a meeting held at New Delhi between the Sikkim government, the private developers of these projects, and the national hydro electric corporation of India (NHPC), Sikkim was asked to either incentivize the independent power producers, or cancel their MoUs after compensating them for investments in the projects.

The independent power producers are not keen on further investments, as breaking even will be impossible in the short term. The returns on investments are bad, production cost high, and sale price of a unit of power low.

 

The mega hydro power projects that fail

Hydro power projects all over the world are subject to widespread criticism for alleged human rights violations. Apart from the catastrophic environmental and geological disasters they trigger, they also resort to land acquisition—often forced—leading to displacement of people. These mega projects are most often imposed upon people in the garb of development; allowing a nexus of governments in collusion with corporate entities engage in this process of plunder. International funding agencies like the World Bank and private equity investors pump in huge quantities of money. Often, these companies or their front (shell) companies are based in tax haven countries and the money trail is obscure.

These mega projects are most often imposed upon people in the garb of development; allowing a nexus of governments in collusion with corporate entities engage in this process of plunder.

For example, in South America the Yacyretá Dam on the Parana River, which lies on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, generated controversy and criticism during its planning and construction, and is often referred to as a ‘monument to corruption’. While initially the construction costs of the dam were slated at $2.5 billion, eventually they escalated to $15 billion.

Environmental and social impacts run rampant. In China, the Three Gorges Dam project was held responsible by scientists and environmentalists for causing draughts in the upstream of Yangtze River and for increasing the frequency of landslides and earthquakes along areas next to the structure. The project also submerged a number of factories, mines and waste dumps, and a few industrial centres, which are alleged to have polluted the river. Biodiversity experts believe that the Three Gorges Dam has affected hundreds of animal and plant species in the Yangtze River and threatened the fisheries in the East China Sea.

Another glaring example would be in Brazil. Best known to the world for football and samba—and the upcoming Olympics, the country is now in the limelight for anti-dam protests against the Belo Monte Dam project which has been under construction since March 2011. The project, situated on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, faces fierce resistance from the Xingu’s Indigenous peoples and social movements, with support from international agencies.

With an expected 11,233 MW installed capacity, Belo Monte will be the world’s third biggest hydroelectric project when it starts full-fledged operation in 2019. The project was first proposed in 1975 but subsequently abandoned due to stiff opposition from environmental activists and local people. It was redesigned and revived in 2003, and received partial environmental license from the Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) in February 2010. The redesigned project, which is being constructed with an estimated investment of $13bn, is now battling at national and international tribunals against charges of displacing thousands of indigenous people and devastating over 1,500km2 of Brazilian rainforest in the Amazon basin.

In Tawang, hydro power projects have also failed to meet development promises by the government. While work on 13 hydro-electing projects in Tawang is currently going on, the government has planned a total of 28 mini- and micro-dams in the district. Even though the power requirement of the district is 6.5MW, if all these mini and micro projects were to produce the electricity as shown on paper, it would be more than 20MW. However, even after many of these projects were completed, they failed to produce adequate electricity, so much so that there are long hours of power cut even in Tawang’s sub-zero temperatures.

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Source: Save Tawang

Conclusion

Development of every nation comes at a cost. The complex nexus and vested business interest of corporate groups, international funding agencies, private equity investors and powerful politicians have created a systematic plunder of natural resources, be it water or coal. However, development needs to be sustainable and not detrimental to the environment. The May 2nd killing in Tawang is a grim reminder to the policy makers that the development path chosen was fraught, to say the least. Globally, due to inflation, escalation of project costs and low returns on investments, many mega projects have failed to deliver as expectated, some have even failed to take off and too many have led to dissidence, socio-cultural rifts, and environmental disasters.

 

Soumik Dutta is a Graduate in Economics from Scottish Church College University of Kolkata, and a a freelance investigative journalist covering hydro power projects and protests by affected people, corruption of government and corporations, and environmental violation by infrastructure projects. He has published his stories in the likes of Outlook Magazine, Cobrapost, hundredreporters.org, and thirdpole.net. He loves travelling, music, reading, and good food.

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Is Europe staring at a second Renaissance?

by Ashish Kothari

A day after I reached Barcelona in Catalonia (Spain) in the last week of May, its first woman mayor was elected, much to the delight of large sections of its civil society. Ada Colau, a 41-year-old activist who has fought with social movements against forced evictions, is with Barcelona En Comú (formerly Guanyem Barcelona).

This is one of many new political outfits in Spain that are rising from peoples’ movements of various hues, including those seeking fundamental changes away from an economic system that has left 50 percent of the country’s youth unemployed, created a massive unpayable public debt, and caused ecological devastation.

Over the next few days I met with a number of researchers and activists and practitioners in Barcelona who are in one way or the other seeking alternative futures. There seems to be an explosion of experiments towards sustainable farming and producer-consumer cooperatives,eco-housing and communes, solidarity networks, complementary or alternative currencies, occupation of empty buildings (squatting) by the homeless or for social activities, cycling and car-free spaces, reclaiming the commons in cities, and much else.

Bank squatted for social purposes, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

Though still marginal in a society that is overwhelmingly consumerist and wasteful as also facing enormous social problems (including a resurgent right-wing in many areas), these initiatives are growing and provide hope for a different future.

This would especially be the case if the grassroots mobilisation in such initiatives can be combined with progressive new elements in the state, such as the ones that have taken power in Barcelona … and if the rapidly rising political formation Podemos takes over Spain in the coming national elections.

 

Promises for another way of living

I will illustrate this with a few examples that I got to know of during my visit. One is theCooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), a network of activists working on various aspects of collaborative, ecologically sensitive living.

Its aim is to be “a tool to create a grassroots counter-power, departing  from self-management, self-organization and direct democracy, and one that would help overcome the actual state of dependency on the structures of the system, towards a scenario of liberty, full awareness, free of authority, and in which everyone could flourish under equal conditions and opportunities.

As CIC activist Ale Fernandez told me, sitting on the roof of one of their working spaces in the midst of an urban herbal garden, the initiative has a very interesting origin. In 2006-08, activist Enric Duran Giralt carried out an act of financial rebellion, borrowing 492,000 Euros from various banks, distributing this to a number of initiatives described as alternatives to capitalism, and refusing to return the money, arguing that banks had been stealing from ordinary people for decades (earning the nickname ‘Robin Bank’!).

When arrested (and later released on bail), Duran pointed out the irony that chief executives of banks who had ruined the lives of millions of people by their irresponsible acts leading to the 2008 financial crisis, were being let off scot-free.

The CIC was started by him and others as a model of how people could live perfectly well without capitalist institutions such as banks, through solidarity and collective actions.The CIC has also evolved into the proposal for a global cooperative called Fair Coop with its own currency (faircoin), similar to Bitcoin but with justice and sustainability principle.

Joel Morist I Botines, CIC, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

CIC worker Joel Morist I Botines took me out for coffee, and with his eyes shining brightly and a big unruly beard flying in the wind, gave me a run-down on all that the collaborative does: The use of unused buildings or other available properties for collective, social housing; community-led, free and alternative education that is integrated with community living; sharing knowledge platforms; producer-consumer exchange especially of organic, ecofriendly products (food, soap, laundry items, toothpastes, etc); technological innovation and collective repair spaces; social or ‘free’ community currencies in which exchanges can take place without using euros and movie-making through crowdfunding.

CIC is involved in these and much else. It has one permanent assembly for decision-making, but many individual processes or projects linked to CIC have their own assemblies, in an attempt towards decentralised or direct democracy. There are about 5000 user members in the producer-consumer exchange.

The full-time paid employees of CIC, interestingly, can even have their salaries reduced as they are encouraged to obtain more and more of their living needs through sharing, alternative currencies, and other ways that reduce the need for money!

The second initiative I saw is fascinating because it is not something we are used to in India. Can Masdeu is an old hospital building that had been abandoned for a few decades and was occupied by an international group of activists who converted it into a housing and social centre in 2001.

They achieved fame in early 2002, when some 100 police came to evict them. Using passive resistance and tactics that would have meant the police possibly injuring themselves and the occupants if forcible eviction was attempted, and eventually winning both significant public support and a local court’s favorable judgement, the activists managed to stay on. Since then, repeated attempts by the Barcelona administration to evict them failed. (Incidentally, the new Barcelona mayor was involved in protesting against these attempts).

The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.

The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.

Can Masdeu’s building and surrounding fields and forests have also become a space for residents of Barcelona (and elsewhere) to come and volunteer for practical work, do joint activities on Sundays, tend to little garden plots assigned to them, bring schoolkids to get exposed to a different life and more.

Claudio Cattaneo, one of Can Masdeu’s veterans, father of a two-year-old child, and also a researcher who has studied the ecological economics of squatting in Barcelona, was quite frank that this was still an evolving experiment. There are many weaknesses to be addressed still (for example, energy use remains relatively high, and it is not yet clear how elderly people would fit in), but even in his statement of gaps one could see that there is already a lot that the place has achieved.

Can Masdeu’s occupation is still technically illegal. I asked Ale Fernandez, one of the early residents, whether he would prefer it to be legalized; he said he was in two minds, it would be ok if there was a good law covering it, but it was also scary to be “part of the machine,” referring to the system that could gobble up such initiatives in a minute.

This is a dilemma many alternative, radical initiatives face in many countries: whether to remain ‘outside’ the system and face continued harassment and possible closure, or to get legitimised by it, which entails the risk of getting institutionalised, less ‘edgy’ and less radical.

Can Masdeu – the fields and the house, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

 

It’s not all about money!

Another widespread trend in Europe encompasses a similar paradox. People in several towns are trying out social currencies of various kinds. In this experiment, the unit of exchange between producer or service provider and consumer is a locally generated ‘money’ or equivalent unit. For that particular exchange, therefore, the relationship is outside the dominant monetary system.

In so far as many of these are ‘complementary’ currencies – working in limited circles, supplementing rather than replacing the dominant currency – they do not really threaten or seriously challenge this system. But some, if they become big like the Bristol pound, can indeed be subversive.

In Barcelona, I met Susana Martín Belmonte, who has helped write a chapter on social currencies for the Barcelona En Comú party that has just come to power in the city. I did not fully understand it, but Susana stressed that this model moved away from bank-related interest, and money as debt and speculation, that was at the centre of the economic crisis. Instead, it focused on positive value creation and trust-based economic exchanges, an early version of which is to be tested in Barcelona.

This initiative is part of a wider European Union funded process of piloting social currencies.

There are however challenges to making this widespread enough to challenge the currently dominant money system. Researcher Kristofer Dittmer, whom I met at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, recently conducted an interesting review of local currencies of various kinds. He concluded that there was not significant evidence of them leading to ‘community-building, advancement of alternative values in economic exchange, facilitation of alternative livelihoods, and eco-localization’, all of which are criteria that the Degrowth movement in Europe espouses.

But there are indeed a number of local benefits, and he said he had not looked at the Bristol pound, which may be one of the few to achieve larger social and economic impact.

Dittmer’s own inclination is for reforms towards a “more democratically controlled monetary system, which is a prerequisite for public spending and taxation that favor communities, egalitarian values, ecologically rational supply-chains, and other principles that degrowth advocates cherish.”

Belmonte, however, feels that if the kind of social currency she is promoting spreads widely, it has the potential to undermine dominant economic powers. This ongoing experimentation and debate in Europe should be of major interest to us in India, as increasingly our movements will also want to look at fundamental changes in economic and monetary systems.

 

Other initiatives

The above initiatives are part of a growing search in Spain and the rest of Europe for alternatives: different ways of being, living, working, and relating that in various degrees question or rebel against the currently dominant economic and political order.

I learnt about these and others over several sessions and treks and meals with a wonderful team of people associated with the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, including the ecological economics guru Joan Martinez-Alier, and his younger colleagues Federico Demaria, Daniela del Bene, Aili Pyhala.

It is through my interactions with them that I came to know of Som Energia, for instance, which is a cooperative buying renewable energy and putting it on the grid, making it more accessible to households. Eticom is a cooperative offering mobile services as an alternative to the big private corporations while ECOS is common working space where many of these cooperatives and projects have their office, with shared cleaning, transport, insurances, finances, design and printing.I also heard more about the movement towards ‘degrowth’, which espouses a considerable scaling down of Europe’s energy and materials use, and encompasses philosophical, ethical, economic, political and socio-cultural elements in its advocacy.

With the above team at ICTA and other local researchers and activists, we discussed the similarities and differences between degrowth and other alternative approaches from elsewhere in the world, including Buen Vivir and Sumak Kawsay in Latin America, swaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED) in India and ubuntu from southern Africa.

A couple of presentations I made on RED/swaraj were well-attended and generated very interesting discussion on a host of complex issues. People were very interested in the various examples of alternative initiatives that I mentioned, and asked many critical questions about them. It was clear that the presence of such initiatives in both Europe and India offers us a great opportunity, to exchange experiences, mutually learn, evolve common futures where globalization is about freer movement of ideas and cultures and people rather than of finance, and build solidarity networks that can also be a political force.

These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.

These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.

Increasingly, however, as the economies of Europe themselves face crises and it becomes clear that tinkering around within the same system is not helping to resolve them, as knowledge of the ill-effects of these lifestyles for the rest of the world and for themselves spreads, and as ecological and social movements gain ground, the ‘ordinary’ person will be faced with choices for the future that are clearly either irresponsible or responsible.

Hopefully, the thousands of initiatives that are springing up will then also provide available pathways to choices of a more responsible life, forging a future in which the colonial past of Europe is replaced with a truly collaborative role vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

Thanks to Federico and Daniela for comments.

This article originally appeared in India Together.