modi make



by Aditya Nigam,
For some months now, I have been thinking of someone whom I saw on television during the parliamentary election campaign. The place was Benaras and Modi’s candidature from the seat had just been declared. The television journalist was interviewing a group of clearly poor people, taking their reactions on this new, though expected development. This person, fairly drunk in his Modi-elixir – and perhaps also a bit literally drunk – swaggered as he answered, affirming his support for Modi: Modi bhi chaiwala hai, hum bhi chaiwala hain (Modi is also a tea-seller and I am also a tea-seller). His words reflected the success of the remarkable gamble – that of projecting the new poster boy of corporate capital as a humble tea-seller. It was clear how so many of the poor had bought into this campaign.

What reminded me of this person initially, was that very soon after the election results were out, even before the government was formed, ‘team Modi’ announced a series of measures for the development of Benaras, which included the building of 60 flyovers – ‘to ease traffic congestion’. Mainly meant for the benefit of smooth flow of motorized traffic (rikshas, cycles and pedestrians, after all, have little place in the economy of the flyover), this was the beginning of a plan that would transform this holy city. If the experience of building flyovers anywhere in India is any experience, this would additionally mean mass demolition of settlements of the poor, shops and even entire informal markets – including tea shops that have long been part of life of local communities.

Then the government took office. Within a couple of months, the plan for Varanasi’s upgradation started being drawn up more concretely. Not everything in the proposed subsequent plan (end July 2014) seemed objectionable -not the least the idea to work on a possible mono rail, improvement of the bus network, and a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) like the one in Ahmedabad. Except that this would mean more and more dislocation of the poor and destruction of their livelihoods. We have seen this happen in city after city in India, including in Delhi.

Finally, as the prime minister embarked on his global sojourn, an agreement was signed whereby Japan would help develop Benaras into a ‘smart city’. What exactly this means is not very clear except that it is supposed to be hi-tech, networked through information technologies and, minus all the frills, embodying business-led urban development. The cities, in short, have to be business friendly. The fundamental point is that, the model for Benaras and for all other Indian cities that this government is putting in place, will be designed with the automobile and the rich at the centre. Where our enthusiastic chai-seller will figure in this recasting of the city is anybody’s guess.

Modi and his supporters can of course, always argue that they made no secret of what their model of development was – and he is doing exactly what he said he would.

This model of an ‘India Rising’, as we have been informed recently, is based on ‘the yearning to defeat defeatism’, that is to say, the UPA II’s inability to act with determination: “Policy paralysis was the anodyne technical term to describe this state. Underneath was a vast nervousness about whether India could actually change.” And this “was the moment Modi stepped into with political finesse…”

We have noted earlier on Kafila that this so-called ‘policy paralysis’ bemoaned by our media commentators and corporate cheer-leaders has little to do with matters relating to common people. On matters like forest rights, food security, environmental protection and labour welfare, there were real developments. ‘Policy paralysis’ – and therefore defeatism – was always a code that meant that corporate capital was not being given free rein to loot the resources and people of the country. At least not the extent they wanted. There is little doubt that the UPA regime too was pro-corporate – it could not have been any different, given the forces it represented and the deep levels of corruption that tied it to different sections of big capital. Nevertheless it was a regime that was still susceptible to some kinds of mass pressures and social movement interventions. That it had put in place schemes like MNREGA or enacted legislations like the Forest Rights Act or the RTI, that it drew up the Food Security Bill – all these were things that bothered neoliberals and corporates alike. As we will see below, the attack on the UPA government and its supposed ‘policy paralysis’ was actually a smokescreen for wanting to do away with precisely these measures that came about through some degree of democratic negotiation.

Some Achievements of the Past Six Months

The very first move of the new government was its attack on one of the linchpins of democratic government: transparency. Not just government officers but even ministers were forbidden from interacting with the media or making any public pronouncements about anything to do with the government. Liberals who should know the value of transparency better than anybody else, had – and continue to have – nothing to say on this matter. And yet, this was precisely the move that enabled the government to move swiftly towards fulfilling its obligations to the corporate sector for its continued plunder of the country’s natural commons.

War on Environment

In the first 50 days itself, long before formal policy changes were announced, the government ‘gave environmental clearance’ (read waived clearance) for five infrastructural projects. According to a Business Standard report, “the projects given clearance include(d) Adani Ports’ Mundra special economic zone (SEZ) in Gujarat, two coal mining projects – Coal India Limited (CIL)’s Tikak block in Assam and Reliance Power’s Chhatrasal block in Madhya Pradesh (MP), GAIL’s gas-based power plant in MP and a state highway renovation project in Assam. These projects are worth around Rs 2,570 crore (excluding Adani Ports, as the environment clearance documents do not mention the cost details of that project).” The background to this, though well-known, bears repeating:

Adani and Reliance Power’s Sasan projects became controversial during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tenure. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pulled up the UPA government alleging Rs 29,033-crore financial gains to R-Power for coal allotment to Sasan ultra mega power project. The Chhatrasal block was among the three captive coal blocks allotted to Sasan Power. The CAG report had called for a review of allocation of the Chhatrasal coal block for the Sasan power plant. The project was given a go-ahead by the environment ministry on July 11. The coal block, having reserves of over 160 million tonnes, will fuel Reliance Power’s 4,000 MW Sasan and 4,000 MW Chitrangi power projects. The Gujarat high court had in January this year ordered the closure of the 12 out of 21 operational units in the Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone due to lack of environment clearances.

The very first three months saw what has been called ‘Modi government’s silent war on the environment‘, Nayantara Narayanan enumerates as many as seven key initiatives that open out, in unprecedented fashion, the path for relentless corporate plunder. These include:

1. Taking away the right of tribal village councils to oppose an industrial project: “The National Democratic Alliance government is looking to discard a provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, that requires the “prior informed consent” of gram sabhas before their forests are cleared for industrial activity. The Act, implemented in 2008, recognises the rights of indigenous tribes over forestlands, asking these groups to certify that their rights have not been violated by an upcoming project.”

2. Exempting coal mining from public hearings, allowing irrigation projects without clearances: “The Environment Ministry has allowed coalmines with a capacity of less than 16 million tons per annum to expand without conducting a public hearing. The cut-off for this exemption used to be 8 mtpa. The ministry has also cleared the one-time expansion of mines with capacity greater than 20 mtpa if the expansion is restricted to 6 mtpa…

Irrigation projects affecting less than 2,000 hectares will no longer require environmental clearances. Those occupying less than 10,000 hectares can be cleared by the state governments.”

3. Lifting the moratorium on new industries in critically polluted areas: “In September 2013, the United Progressive Alliance’s environment ministry directed the Central Pollution Control Board to reassess the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index, an important criterion for project clearance, while keeping intact the moratorium on new industries in critically-polluted areas.

But even before the review is completed, the ministry under Prakash Javadekar has lifted the moratorium in eight critically polluted areas – Ghaziabad, Indore, Jharsuguda, Ludhiana, Panipat, Patancheru-Bollaram, Singrauli and Vapi.”

4. Diluting forest norms and allowing industry to creep closer to national parks: “The environment ministry has changed a provision of the Environmental Impact Assessment rules to allow projects to come up within 5 km of a protected area without clearance from the now-toothless National Board for Wildlife. The earlier rule made NBWL clearance mandatory for projects in these eco-sensitive zones unless they were 10 km or more away.”

On Land Acquisition

Ever since the great anti-land acquisition struggles of Singur and Nandigram made a decisive impact, forcing both the state government of West Bengal and the central UPA government on the backfoot, there has been a raging debate about the issue. Singur and Nandigram actually turned the spotlight on many of the earlier anti-displacement land struggles that have been going on for years. The Nandigram moment forced a fresh re-examination of the issue, including the all-important point about whether this should be the task of a government at all. Especially  in a market economy, does it make any sense for a government to forcibly acquire peasants’ or tribal people’s land in order to pass them on to private corporations? It was under the impact of the massive reappraisal of this and related issues, and subsequent struggles like the one in Bhatta Parsaul, that the UPA government was forced to review and amend the land acquisition law and bring in a new legislation, namely, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill. This has been described as a ‘landmark legislation’ and along with the issue of environmental clearances, constitutes the crux of the ‘defeatism’ of which the government was accused by the corporate sector. Little wonder then that almost simultaneously, the Modi government moved to make sweeping changes in the land acquisition laws. Thus, according to a Hindustan Times report in mid-July:

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