Well diggers tackling water woes in a megacity: The case of Bangalore, India

by Dennis Schüpf

Bangalore was once called the city of lakes. In recent years not only has it been called the city of burning lakes due to dumping of toxic waste in the lakes, but also predictions show that severe water crisis will turn the city uninhabitable by 2025. Despite this, the overexploitation of groundwater and its socio-ecological consequences are overlooked by policy makers and users alike. The Mannu Vaddar community, with their traditional well-digging skills, can improve the urban resilience against water scarcity and offer a solution towards the shrinking groundwater levels of the booming city. 

This essay presents a glimpse into the water woes of one of Asia’s fastest growing cities, dubbed as India’s Silicon Valley, with a perspective on groundwater. It thereby seeks to highlight the interconnectedness of the urban and rural space by addressing traditional well-digging in the context of sustainable water management. A photographic documentary is added to witness the work of the Mannu Vaddar. Even though Bangalore might seem to be an isolated case, it is only one tiny piece of the whole struggle to cope with an exploitation driven growth agenda, demographically as well as economically, incompatible with finite resources. 

Historically, Bangalore was once considered a city of lakes with 285 lakes until hit by reckless urbanization fueled by the ever-growing IT industry. In comparison to the Bangalore of ten years ago, almost half of the lakes have dried up and been taken over as new spaces for modern settlements. The lakes which were originally made for irrigation helped to recharge groundwater levels. The metropolis does not lack rainfall at all, with about 972mm of average annual precipitation during April and November and around 60 rainy days in a year. The crucial point here is the city’s inability to make the rainwater percolate back into the ground. Unfortunately, an immense amount of rainwater that could recharge the aquifers, instead flows down the buildings and roads of Bangalore, which became a concrete jungle over the years. It is estimated that 93% of the city has been paved.

Bangalore’s water lifeline is the Cauvery river located 100km south of the city. The river supplies nearly 1,900 million liters of water on a daily basis for a growing population of around 13 million citizens. Nevertheless, about 3 million people struggle to access the municipal water supply especially during the severe dry months. As construction continues at an alarming pace, there is no assurance of either drinking water provision or other basic amenities in new building complexes. Consequently, the number of private borewells increased especially in the more populous periphery of the city, which is mainly suspended from the municipal water supply system. Groundwater, accessed through the digging of borewells, became the primary source of water for rapidly growing districts in the periphery and some parts completely depend on it already. At least 40% of the current total water demand of Bangalore is met by groundwater resources. But as the demand for groundwater increases borewells must dig deeper, since the water levels shrink to zero. In addition, there is no data to keep track of the number of borewells. It is estimated that the amount of borewells lies above 400 000 with a lot of wells that have already dried out. 

At the moment, Bangalore tackles its water scarcity with (private) tankers that supply water often at a high price and with a questionable water quality. In many areas of Bangalore groundwater is contaminated by industrial pollution, sewage, and high nitrate levels. But millions of citizens heavily rely on the truck delivered water. In conclusion, the mentioned dynamics contribute to a large extent to the depletion of groundwater and easily result in political conflicts with residents competing over access to the dwindling resource.

In this context where the (ground)water crisis makes the social consequences exceed the environmental costs; it is time to shift the focus from the urban to the rural landscape. Not even 50km away from Bangalore, quite on the outskirts of the megacity, live the Mannu Vaddar, a community of well-diggers, that traditionally provided people with the access to groundwater. For generations, the Mannu Vaddar are the keepers of the knowledge of how and where to dig wells. The tradition of well-digger communities in India, as well as the cultural well heritage, can be traced back more than 1000 years. Back then the first open wells allowed humans to explore inland away from the dependency on rivers and other water resources. However, in the early 1980s Cauvery water supply along with borewells replaced the culture of open wells in Bangalore, which at that time had been the main source of drinking water. 

This shift towards modern water management allowed the city to expand geographically, as well as economically, since more water was pumped. But the dramatic drop of overall water levels in the region in the past years has led to a corresponding decline in the demand for well-digging. In the current situation people are in a rush to dig deeper borewells to extract the last bits of water from the aquifers with mechanic pumps. The human-environmental gap widens and the disconnect between urban spaces and their water flows intensifies.

How could the revival of traditional well-digging contribute to solve Bangalore’s water woes?

The ability of the Mannu Vaddar comes into play exactly where Bangalore’s capacity to store rainwater ends. The low water levels correlate with too much concrete jungle, hence the fact that there is not enough rainwater percolating back into the ground. This is where the well-diggers enter the arena of urban water management. Wells, dug in the right location, can recharge the groundwater levels by connecting them to the shallow aquifers. These aquifers are an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock through which water can be stored in the ground. Hence, the Mannu Vaddar help to make water move through these different types of rocks and soil, which is crucial to tackle the depletion of groundwater resources.

Therefore, the Mannu Vaddar’s skill comprises more than mere physical labor. It includes the crucial knowledge on soil types, rocky layers, and other traits of the region’s aquifers to successfully strike water. ‘We feel and smell it in the soil’, says Venkatesh a 23 years old well-digger, who belongs to the Mannu Vaddar community. Mannu literally means soil. There is no doubt that their craft requires a deep knowledge and sensitivity to work the natural element. It is physical work combined with the human senses that make them reach the natural source of water under the surface. The technique and knowledge are passed on across generations when the young well-diggers work alongside with skilled elders. 

Pedhanna (52), an experienced member of the Mannu Vaddar, has been digging more than 3000 wells in his life. His son, Venkatesh (23), surpassed the sheer number of 1000 by the age of 23. Many young well-diggers do not seek for labor or a career in the metropolis, even though the constant fear for jobs is present. During the week, the Mannu Vaddar migrate from the rural outskirts to the city to look for work by knocking at the doors from house to house. Although the job opportunities today lie within Bangalore many young men still appreciate the natural surroundings of the village and prefer this way of life from the urban hustle.  

Their work is done by hand and with simple tools. With nothing but shovels and metal skewers the well is dug deep into the earth by one Mannu Vaddar. When the soil is softened by the skewer, two well-diggers pull it up with a bucket attached to two thick ropes. This process takes place even under hot climatic conditions. The Mannu Vaddar know very well when they are about to strike water. The smell of the soil and its consistency changes and when it lumps, the well-diggers can be sure that they reached for the edge of a shallow aquifer. Just a few centimeters deeper and water will fill up the dug pit. However, the security and the insurance of the well-diggers is poor, regarding the risk climbing up and down inside the wells. 

Unlike the extractive borewells, the wells of the Mannu Vaddar are not narrow, but open with the ability to recharge and access the higher aquifers. The aquifers in turn can fill up rapidly under Bangalore’s rich precipitation. The so-called recharge wells, typically 20ft. deep with 3 diameters, collect rainwater and revive the shallow aquifer. Apart from well-digging the Mannu Vaddar community is cleaning and  maintaining all types of wells across Bangalore. The input of the well-diggers supports the creation of a river below us in areas with aquifers in the city.

Coming back to the bigger picture the linkage between the overexploitation of groundwater and the recharge of the aquifers is fundamental to cope with Bangalore’s water woes. By law groundwater rights are attached to the land, so that the owners can extract as much water as desired without limitations. Apart from the right institutional response, wells, not borewells, can play a crucial role in the rejuvenation process of groundwater. An interview with a young well-digger makes it clear how the change in demand of work goes hand in hand with the water crisis in Bangalore. As the demand for typical open wells declined over the past years, recharge wells became increasingly important, since its owners want to recharge the borewells that already ran dry. 

In this context the Mannu Vaddar can play a crucial role towards rainwater harvesting and water self-sufficiency. The city’s capability to make the water percolate to the ground is crucial for a sustainable water management in the long run and the Mannu Vaddar bear the ancient knowledge to move towards this goal. 

Dennis Schüpf is a Master student in International Development studies with a focus on socio-environmental conflicts related to water resources. Based in Germany, his work as a documentary photographer spans from urban to rural perspectives on environmental and social issues with an emphasis on the stories of people. 

January’s readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Uneven Earth updates

We’ve launched our series on sci-fi, near-futures, utopias, and dystopias, Not afraid of the ruins. The first three stories are now online! Expect a new piece every Friday.

Borne on a damaged planet | Link | Two books that do the hard work of thinking through the Anthropocene

Library | Link | A climate change poem

The naked eyes | Link | “Keith’s livelihood was sandwiched between an ocean of algorithms and a ceiling of decision-making programs.”

Why the left needs Elinor Ostrom |  Link | An interview with Derek Wall, author of Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals, on the need to think beyond market and state.

Our printing press’ first paperback, In defense of degrowth, is hot off the press! You can order it at indefenseofdegrowth.com.

   

You might have missed…

Defend Afrin!

Turkey, commanding the second-largest NATO army, has attacked the predominantly Kurdish region in Syria building a feminist & democratic governance system. The region under attack, Afrin, has gone the furthest in institutionalizing women’s liberation. You can follow any updates or find local protests via #DefendAfrin.

More and more environmental activists are getting killed

The “Environmental Warriors” series from the LA Times chronicles stories from around the world, showing why and how increasingly more environmental activists are faced with repression and violence.

Indigenous occupation of oil platforms in the Amazon

“This is not a symbolic action.” An investigative piece from The Intercept.

In India, women are fed up and starting their own agricultural collectives

“The movement is led by educated Dalit youth, who know they have been cheated of land that is rightfully theirs.”

Brazil announces end to Amazon mega-dam building policy

While many threats to the Amazon remain, indigenous and environmental groups celebrated this victory which can be partly attributed to their resistance.

The World Bank admits it botched Chile’s competitiveness ranking, charged with political manipulation

This is important. The International Organisation’s dealings often don’t get much scrutiny, but their reports can make or break a country. An informative Twitter thread here.

A victory for the movement against airports?

The Zone à défendre (ZAD) achieved a victory this month: France announced that it would no longer build the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But for ZADistas, it is a half-victory: “While we are trying to prevent the construction of an airport, more than 400 others are being planned or built around the world.”

Where we’re at: analysis

Happy new year! Essays on loneliness, happiness, and an accelerating world

We’re more lonely now than ever: an article on the science of loneliness. To ramble: an ode to the stroll and loitering. An investigation into the new culture of mindfulness in the corporate world. A New Yorker article on the happiness industry. And a Jacobin piece on ‘neoliberal perfectionism’ and how it stands in the way of solidarity and a collective agency.

Maria Kaika on the falsehoods of urban sustainability

Smart cities, green urbanism, livable cities. The catchy terms keep proliferating, but does it come with better policies? Maria Kaika, foremost theorist on cities, opens up a bag of worms in this interview.

The globalisation of slums

An essay by urban geographer Pushpa Arabindoo on the increasing ubiquity of slums—and conversation about them—around the world.

A memo to Canada: acknowledge Indigenous right to self-determination

A striking essay on Canada’s broken relationship with Indigenous people.

The case against GMOs: it’s the industry, stupid

Charles Eisenstein widens the frame on the GMO discussion. “If you believe that society’s main institutions are basically sound, then it is indeed irrational to oppose GMOs.”

Seven cheap things

Last month we shared an interview with Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore about their new book: A history of the world in seven cheap things. This is a critical review by Ian Angus at Climate and Capitalism.

The book that incited a worldwide fear of overpopulation

How The Population Bomb triggered a wave of repression around the world.

Leading Marxist scholar David Harvey on Trump, Wall Street and debt peonage

“often current events are analyzed in a vacuum that almost never includes the context or history necessary to understand what is new, what is old and how we got to where we are.”

New politics

Two years of radical municipalism in Barcelona

A documentary about what happened in Barcelona and why it matters, including resources for discussing the video with your local group. An inspiring interview on the new politics in Spain, and how people have used the internet in creative ways. Eight lessons from the last two years of radical municipalism. A report on the first Fearless Cities conference last year held in Barcelona, and another report on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which is experimenting with a new economic system in the shell of the old.

New strategies to organize tenants

“Today’s tenant organizers confront a highly fragmented and individualized rental sector. The challenge, then, is not just to mobilize tenants but to create a shared sense of being a tenant.”

Living through the catastrophe

Editorial from the seventh issue of ROAR magazine, which examines the social and political nature of climate change. The issue also features an explainer on the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s work for today’s climate crisis.

Climate change and the humanities: a historical perspective

“If we can resist the age-old impulse to define binary oppositions between ways of knowing—scientific versus humanistic, expert versus popular—we will be in a better position to join forces across those divides towards understanding and action”, argues Deborah Cohen.

Atlantic freedoms

“Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution.” In light of President Trump’s recent ‘shithole’ comments, this article from 2016 on Haiti’s revolutionary history is worth revisiting.

The shitty new communist futurism

Aaron kicks off a new series of articles on the ENTITLE blog which questions the foundations of ‘eco-modernist socialism’ and ‘communist futurism’ as proposed in Jacobin’s climate change issue Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Resources

A reading list on Indigenous climate justice

How to get new activists to stay engaged for the long haul

There’s been upsurge in activism since the Trump election, but how do we keep people engaged? A nice how-to from Waging Nonviolence.

A critical framework for a just recovery

With increasing natural disasters and the retreat of the state, more and more people are getting involved with grassroots disaster response movements. Movement Generation has put out a document with a guiding framework for how to do people-based recovery. PDF here.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico?

A thorough syllabus on the island’s history and its not-so-natural catastrophes.

Sci-fi and the near future

Ursula K. Le Guin on the need to end the narrative of the triumphant hero

“It is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.” Ursula K. Le Guin has died, and there are so many more worlds to explore. We’ll build them with her in our hearts. This is one of our favorite pieces by her, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Luxury home developments of the future will include patented ecosystems

“Entire landscapes, replete with designer insects and subscription seed stock, will have the potential to be recognised as protected intellectual property. The proprietary ecosystem will emerge, financially and biologically controlled by a particular hotel chain, property developer or private homeowner.”

Climate gentrification?

Welcome to the future: climate change will mean a new math for real estate investment.

Solarpunk wants to save the world

Move over cyberpunk. Say hello the new kid on the sci-fi block, solarpunk.

The world is full of monsters

We like our stories filled with weird creatures. A collection of shorts by Jeff VanderMeer.

Welcome to the wasteland

Ok, this isn’t sci-fi, but it certainly feels like it. A graphic illustration of a post-apocalyptic festival.

A strategy for ruination

An interview with China Miéville about the limits of utopia.

Carbon omissions

“with looming climate change and the decline of cheap oil, I couldn’t shake the question of what would power all these gadgets, and none of the futurists seemed to bring it up.”

Writing

On seeing and beeing seen: Writing about Indigenous issues with love

“To truly write from another experience in an authentic way, you need more than empathy. You need to write with love.” By Alice Elliott.

Women writing about the wild: 25 essential authors

A primer on some of the best nature writing you probably haven’t read yet.

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In India, dispossession in the name of conservation

by Eleonora Fanari

Sita Maji of the Santhal tribe sits in front of her temporary house in Munda, Mayurnbanj district of Odisha, India. She lives with her two children, one and three years old, along with her husband and her old mother. In the hot May weather of 45 degrees, this small house is the only escape for her family of five—70 km away from her ancestral village in Kabathgai, from where she was forcefully relocated by the Forest Department on May 28 2016.

Kabathgai was a village located in the core area of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, one of the biggest and most recognized tiger reserves in the East Indian state of Odisha. While the home of many tigers, Simlipal has also been home to numerous tribal communities such as Santhal, Kolho, and Khadia, which have inhabited these lands for centuries.

The red silk cotton trees of semul flowers, which give the name to the Simlipal National Park, have been the house, the shadow, and companionship to tribal people like Sita. But today to respond to the need for environment conservation, in Simlipal, as well as in many other Tiger Reserves of India, many villages have been relocated outside the forest area, because they are considered a threat to the wildlife and the conservation of the tigers. No longer considered the protectors of the forest, they have been targeted by the government and the wildlife “experts” as encroachers.

The villagers of ex-Kabathgai engaged in building their own concrete houses.

 

The relocation

The relocation of Kathbagai village has been planned after the notification of the new Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) in Simlipal Tiger Reserve. The critical tiger habitats (CTHs), also known as core areas of tiger reserves, are identified under the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, based on scientific evidence that “such areas are required to be kept as inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation.” The term “inviolate” has mostly been interpreted as “free of human presence”. However, in many parks all over India, the demarcation of CTHs coincides with areas inhabited by numerous human settlements.

The Santhal village of Kabathgai fell under the demarcation of the new core tiger area in Simlipal, announced in December 2007. For this reason Sita’s family was relocated, as her family was considered dangerous for the wildlife conservation and for the protection of the tigers.

With a yellow bright sari, and a tired expression, Sita is resting after a morning of hard work of building up her new houses in the relocated Munda place. She tells me how difficult their life has been since the relocation: “Out of the forest everything needs to be purchased from the market, and after the relocation the forest department helped us with only 1 kg rice per person for the first 3 months. The food available here is of bad quality and we are suffering from bad health issues”. Sita explains about the conditions at the site of relocation, but her eyes glimpse only when she tells about her forest, remembering those days when their children could play freely on the ground, and the women used to rest under the big shading trees.

Sita Maji sits in front of her temporary mud house.

Relocated Munada site, Mayurnbanj district, Odisha.

The relocated site is still a temporary camp, where a row of mud houses has been covered by plastic black tents that function both as shade and protection for the rain. Firewood and kitchen utensils are spread throughout the house’s lane where cooking, sleeping and washing clothes take place in the same narrow area. Electricity is still not available and a water pump and one temporary toilet have been considered to be enough for the entire community of 47 families.

“Here it is very hot. Without any trees, rivers and lands we feel lost! We are not used of living in such an environment and in the hot summer, we are suffering from lots of sicknesses and many people have been already carried to the hospital because of dehydration” says Sita Maji.

For two months the entire community have been working to build up their houses of about 10×8 feet per family, under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), a National scheme aiming at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas.

After the construction is finished they will need to take some other wage labour from outside in order to survive.

Checkpoint at the limit of the Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) of Simlipal Tiger Reserve.

The tribal people: puppet of the legal regime

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the Forest Rights Act, (FRA) 2006 is the legal instrument that recognises the rights of Sita to inhabit the forest area and to carry on her traditional activities.

The FRA is a milestone act with the aim of restoring the traditional and customary rights of the tribal and the forest dwellers’ communities that have historically been denied and exploited by the colonial forest governance. Prior to the FRA, entire communities living inside protected areas were denied entitlements on their forest land, and always threatened by eviction due to being considered illegal in their own territory. Other forest entitlements such as grazing, fishing, collecting of minor forest products (MFPs) were also denied. Thus the FRA is a piece of legislation that gives hope to all the forest dwellers in India.

Sita’s family have struggled for many years to obtain the piece of paper that could allow them to live in peace, cultivate the land, carrying on their activities in the forest and finally enjoy the legal rights which they have previously been denied. After a long struggle, Sita’s community got their community title in 2015, but they were forced to relocate just after. “We fought for our land and for our children, but the pressure put on us by the forest department was unbearable, and we had to come out to find a bit of peace,” says Sita remembering the day they got pushed out of their forest.

“People living in the Kabataghai village in the core tiger zone were forced continuously to relocate by the forest department. Department also sent middle-men to lure village residents into accepting the compensation package, lying that it is a one-time opportunity” says Sanghamitra, a member of Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy, a group of activists from across India advocating the FRA. She has been working closely with the Tribespeople living in the core zone of Simlipal.

According to the FRA, the people can be relocated by the Critical Tiger Habitat only if non-coexistence with wildlife have been proved through scientific studies, and only after the voluntary and written consent of the gram sabha (the elder’s council). The people of Kobathgai were never keen to be relocated. In the middle of the winter, Sita’s family had to leave their ancestral land. The entire colony was moved with trucks to this desolate piece of land close to the main city of Jashipur. “In that same day our houses were turned apart, our cropped land destroyed by elephant and our community villages took over by the authorities,” explains Sita, remembering that day which is still very fresh in her memory.

Meeting on the Forest Rights Act implementation in the buffer village of Badhakasaira, planned to be relocated.

When  the District Collector of Mayurbhanj, who is responsible for the relocation of the people, was asked if the relocation was forced he absolutely argued that all relocation have been voluntary. But is continuous harassment, destruction of crops, and physical and mental torture considered normal behavior by the Forest Department, who instead should have cooperated with the villagers and recognized their granted rights as per FRA.

With a package of 10 lakh rupees (US$15,000) and a false promise of land, the Kabathgai community had no option but relocation.

The rights recognized under the Forest Rights Act are now expired, according to the District Collector, and people are not anymore able to go back to their ancestral land, pursue their traditional activities, and to collect the MFPs for their livelihood. Landless and helpless, the people of Kabathgai are yet to realize how to survive out of the forest. The men seem to show more strength and hope about a new modern life, while the women are feeling the frustration and the fear of a life not corresponding to their needs.

Relocated site of Kiajhari, a village relocated from the buffer zone of Simlipal to the outside Khonduador area.

An ongoing struggle

Sita’s community is not the only one which has been forcefully evicted by the forest department disregarding FRA 2006. In the same Simlipal Tiger Reserve, since 20094 villages, 3 from the core tiger area and 1 from the buffer zone, have been already moved out of the forest. Conflicts between state forest departments and Indigenous people are being reported across the protected areas of the country. According to a report on displacement due to conservation published by the environmentalist A. Kothari, in the last 30 years a number between 100,000 to 300,000 people have been displaced in the name of conservation.

In Kanha Tiger Reserve more than 700 families of the Baiga tribe have been displaced since 1970. In Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve a number of 3,400 families got displaced without any proper compensation and relocation; in Kaziranga in the state Assam a 2015 high court order has ordered the eviction of more than 2,000 forest dwellers inhabiting the area, among which many are Mising tribal people, Adivasis and Bengali minorities.

The Forest Rights Act continues to be ignored by the authorities which carry on with illegal evictions in the name of conservation.

A recent circular issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the government body that looks after the managing of the tiger reserves for the conservation of the big cat, ordered that ‘no forest rights under FRA should be anymore granted inside the CTH’. This means the annulment of rights for forest dwellers like Sita,  whose traditional livelihoods are dependent on their ability to collect MFPs.

The order could indeed seriously aggravate the situation on the ground. Tribespeople who have been fighting for their rights in the forest even after the FRA being in place are now compelled to come together to fight against the NTCA’s order.

The conflict arising in the name of biodiversity conservation has been increasing in India as well as in many other part of the world. In the name of conservation today many communities are getting relocated and deprived of their means of survival without properly ensuring them any livelihood option and without any engagement in the real meaning of conservation.

Today conservation is just another name used as a justification for territorialism.

The positive connotation given to conservation is being used to hide the negative words of dispossession, land acquisition, and denial of rights. It is under this name that Sita’s family was relocated from her village, last year during the monsoons without proper shelter or facilities, and with only the support of a few kilos of rice. “We could not sleep at night and the children were constantly crying. We are now working day and night in the hot weather to finish the construction of the house before the new monsoon season starts, but after this who knows what our destiny will be,’ argues Sita.

While pronouncing these words she turns towards the empty space, and then looking at me she says: “We were before the protectors of the forest, now they turn us into its enemy!”

Children playing in the village of Kolha, a village who have received FRA land titles and developing a conservation community management committee (CCMC).

All photos by Eleonora Fanari

Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She has been working on the issue of social exclusion, minorities, and land rights in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations. She is currently associated with Kalpavriksh, a non profit organization working on environmental and social issues, where she is carrying on research on conservation and tribal rights in protected forest areas. She blogs here.

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.