When Obama visited India earlier this week, saying India "has already emerged" as a power in Asia and globally, his compliments were loaded.
On Wednesday night at IATP, Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao from the Environment Support Group (ESG) in Bangalore, described India's current tug of war between its traditional commons-based framework (collectively owned resources and landscapes) and the privatization that accompanies foreign direct investment (FDI) and globalization.
In the U.S. today, as highlighted by Shalini Gupta with IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, imagining a model without privatization may be near impossible for many. India's current struggle is more comparable to late-1800's North America—in the midst of the industrial revolution, at war with indigenous tribes, and spurred onward by increasing demand for natural resources and promised riches of industrial development.
The push for globalization in India brings with it a fundamental shift in the environment and traditional way of life. According to Saldanha, jobs are indeed created, but not jobs for the farmers, fishers and indigenous tribes. In fact, the land, waters and forests that provide their livelihoods are being appropriated to private interests and natural resources are being extracted at alarming rates.
Global demand—and India's own push for an increased GDP—dictates that profits be maximized. The traditional commons-based framework and environmental laws, then, are barriers that must be removed. It began, Saldanha said, in the 60s tourist boom: coastal beaches once used for fishing filled up with four-star hotels.
Now, according to Bhargavi Rao, roads are being widened, public parks are being gated and grazing lands are being turned into garbage dumps for corporations. And to make room for these drastic changes to the environment, development advocates are pushing to dilute India’s environmental laws.
In 1986, two years after the tragic Bhopal gas leak, the Indian parliament enacted the Environment Protection Act. It allows companies and individuals to be held criminally (not just civilly) liable for violations of environmental standards. Now, an RFP from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pushing for a move from the current standards to one limited to civil liability in the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests—a move that would essentially pull the legislation's teeth while protecting foreign investors.
Saldanha and Bhargavi described the underreported thousands of Indian farmer suicides throughout the past decade attributed to this globalization. "The state moved from being a custodian of public land to an appropriating force," Saldanha said.
What are Leo, Bhargavi and ESG doing to fight back? A combination of protest with litigation and lobbying forms the foundation of ESGs work, but as Bhargavi said, "Protest is backbone of grassroots struggle." One example included forming a human chain around a lake that was nearly sold off to business interests. Another, coalition-based, action included writing a death certificate for the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The latest effort centers on trying to stop Asia's largest steel maker, POSCO, from being allowed to build plants on forest and coastal lands. Clearance for this project—funded, in part by Warren Buffett, and India's largest-ever foreign direct investment—has been granted but, as one NGO alleges, may have been obtained illegally. For now, the project's progress has been stalled, but not defeated.
Obama's visit earlier this week was more than a goodwill visit, multinational business interests globally and in the U.S. stand to make millions. "Maximizing profits for a few while leaving millions behind," is how Saldanha describes the ongoing changes. And, perhaps Obama's description of India as "already emerged" was a bit premature. If emerging means destroying the environment, displacing the indigenous and taking livelihoods away from poor farmers, surely prosperity lies on another path.