According to the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJA), there are more environmental conflicts in India than any other country. Considering wide swathes of India remain ravaged by heat waves, severe droughts, and an increasing death toll, it’s not surprising to hear that Indian citizens and activists are increasingly rallying against political and economic systems which create and exacerbate such conditions.
And this isn’t just an Indian problem – it’s an extractivist problem. Naomi Klein, in her recent book ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’ defines the extractive mindset as “taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration”. The neoliberal capitalism, which undergirds our global economic system is based entirely on this heedless extraction of natural resources.
Take mineral-rich countries in Africa for example. Many of the mining contracts currently in place are legacies of colonial power, encouraging government corruption and leaving little sustenance for the people on the ground. While contracts have been renegotiated and environmental laws have been enacted, little which directly alleviates the concerns of local people has been enforced.
These patterns are repeated across the globe, India being no exception. Despite laws such as the FRA, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) and the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement Act which return democratic rights to local peoples, extractive development projects have continued to bulldoze their way to profit in ways which destroy faith in government institutions.
In February, the Chhattisgarh government cancelled tribal rights over forest lands, overruling legal rights given to gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and to grant mining companies access to forest land. In return for these land grabs, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh has promised poverty alleviation, job creation and revival of jewellery and goldsmithing trades.
However, research published by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2008 belies such promises, finding that states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa, which are heavily dependent on mining resources, have “very low per capita incomes, greater poverty, high rates of malnutrition and mortality”.
While benignly named companies like Adani Mining and Vedanta Resources, can enter, extract, and leave, the local people have no such choice. Those who aren’t displaced or torn away from their hereditary lands are left with lands left infertile and utterly spent. As Raúl Zibechi succinctly puts it, “Extractivism creates a society without subjects. There can only be objects within a scorched-earth model like extractivism.”
Having deep-rooted relationships with their lands, many Indian citizens, however, are unwilling to give up their basic needs – land, water, food, clean air. And they’ve faced significant backlash for asserting their rights.
Activist Soni Sori, who endured an acid attack because of her anti-mining efforts, has recently spoken out on the government’s utilisation of the ‘Naxalite threat’ as an excuse to imprison and kill Adivasis, thereby gaining access to land taken without settling rights. Protests against mining activity in Goa recently led to violent arrests of peaceful activists. The Vizhinjam port project in Kerala received a green light despite significant levels of protest from local people. The Madhya Pradesh government recently invoked Section 144 in response to calls for peaceful protest against South Eastern Coalfields Limited.
This type of resistance doesn’t spring up overnight. It is built over decades of hollow promises, unethical practices, and the government’s thorough lack of concern for democratic rights. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “How do we make extraction-based development projects more ethical?” but rather, “Why must we extract in the first place? Who benefits?” It certainly isn’t the people of the land.