Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Small is beautiful but not sufficient. Large and even mega projects cannot be shunned as economies of scale and competitiveness matter. Even if private land purchase and transfer are facilitated without land acquisition, other impediments remain.

Development, Resource Depletion, Lifestyles

Natural resources are national assets that belong to the people and ideally exploited by the public sector, but conservation, pricing and technology need examination.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 7 June, 2010

The Supreme Court on May 7 ruled that natural resources are national assets that belong to the people and are ideally exploited by public sector undertakings. This obviously implies that local communities, including tribals, living on mineralised land enjoy entitlements but no prescriptive ownership rights to such national assets. This is an important reiterative clarification defining mineral rights in Fifth Schedule areas that are currently in contention. Whether PSUs should exclusively exploit this wealth is moot as increasingly innovative regulatory mechanisms suggest that private investments can be brought in line with “national interest”.

The draft Land Titling Bill, 2010, marks another seminal step in mitigating if not altogether removing ambiguity, uncertainty, litigation and unconscionable delays in transferring land titles. The absence of clear titles has been a huge impediment to development and financing, as records of rights, even where they exist, are totally unreliable and have given a handle to land mafias. Early legislation could eliminate land transfers as a major development hurdle. If titles are clearly annotated in a Register of Titles, focus will shift from the legality of transactions to the terms and conditions of compensation for loss of property, livelihoods and future benefits.

Some years back, a National Sample Survey report indicated that 40 per cent of farmers sampled would give up farming if suitable employment and income alternatives were available. More recent data, as from Nandigram and Salboni (the Jindal steel plant site in West Bengal) and from Andhra Pradesh, indicate that with falling land-man ratios farm sizes are becoming ever less viable and agriculturists are leasing out or selling lands to become tenants or landless labourers, burdened by debt and hunger. Agriculture is in crisis and must be enabled to enhance productivity and farm incomes. Increasingly marginalized farming is not viable as a way of life and people need to abandon nostalgia and move from farm to non-farm avocations as part of an ongoing national socio-economic transition. This is not going to be easy and must be assisted by appropriate state policies.

Small is beautiful but not sufficient. Large and even mega projects cannot be shunned as economies of scale and competitiveness matter. Even if private land purchase and transfer are facilitated without land acquisition, other impediments remain. Generous R&R, compensation, stakeholder participation, training for emerging employment opportunities and a share in future benefits are required and new regimes are coming into place and better packages are constantly being evolved. Forest protection is obviously important from the point of view of ensuring adequate green cover, preserving biodiversity and wildlife sanctuaries. But none of these are absolutes and are subject to tradeoffs over time and space. Many so-called pristine forests in the European and Japanese Alps and Himalaya are actually regenerated forests and large dams, so readily condemned for submerging forests, by and large create far more green cover than they destroy. For the Sardar Sarovar project the ratio is something like 500:1.

Likewise mines. A most valuable Centre for Science and Environment study, “Challenge of the New Balance” (May 2010) estimates that for India to get on to a low carbon growth path by 2031 will require augmenting the land under six major carbon emitting sectors – fertiliser, steel, aluminium, cement, paper and pulp and power and their related mines and ancilliaries – by a million ha over and above the 0.7 m ha currently occupied by them. Power (including coal mining and hydro) and steel and related mines account for 64 and 16 percent of this total. Likewise, water consumption by these six sectors will rise almost threefold by 2031 to over 16,000 million cubic metres per annum or three times the current drinking water needs of the country today.

These are formidable figures. But there can be savings over and above what has been built into the CSE model. Land requirements per unit of production of steel/aluminum, etc, needs to be standardized nationwide, allowing for technological and topographical variations, so as to preclude over-indenting for future expansion, speculation or diversion to other uses or real estate. Norms can be fixed and subsequent land sales/diversions subjected to stakeholder sharing and taxation. Mines occupy by far the largest area. But apart from underground mining, open cast mining is possible in excavate-fill and cover strips, so that not all the leased area is bare all times and the whole area is retuned to forest at the end of the cycle. The Prime Minister’s Office is wisely pushing the Ministry of Environment and Forests to approve coal mining in forest blocks with relatively larger crown cover. The right balance must be struck.

As far as water is concerned, use of seawater and inland saline aquifers, nuclear desalination and multiple recycling can be contemplated. Exploration of the long hypothesized deep aquifer underlying the northern Ganga plain is obviously overdue. If proven, this could be a huge bonus. Over and beyond that, national water accounting cannot exclude storages in Nepal and Bhutan, nor the fact that over 70 per cent of the nation’s water goes to agriculture which is an inefficient user with so-called “pro-poor” pricing policies (including that of electricity and diesel), encouraging waste. Improved technology, better maintenance, rational cropping patterns and demand management can make a huge difference. The big-dams-are-bad mantra is ideologically driven and large hydro or multipurpose schemes may now be warranted by the uncertainties of climate change and aberrant rainfall.

Misconceptions persist. Bauxite mining projects like Gandhamardhan and Nyimgiri in Orissa will actually improve the water regime by removing the top layer of impervious laterite that prevents infiltration and recharge. Pollution must of course be controlled.

Another article in the Economic and Political Weekly (Banikanta Mishra, May 15, 2010, refers to the danger of resource exhaustion of iron ore, bauxite and coal in Orissa on account of the large number of mega plants being licensed, together with large ore export commitments at low prices and low royalty charges. This returns to a theme being pressed once more with grater urgency by the Club of Rome. On one calculation, Mishra estimates that at current rates of exploitation, Orissa’s reserves of bauxite and coal will last 50 years and its iron ore reserves for no more than 20 years. Then what? Water demands are also going to affect farming and domestic/municipal use.

This trajectory merits examination. Conservation, pricing and better technology are called for. With that, a reconsideration is indicated of the nation’s (and global) growth path and lifestyle patterns that are related more to greed than “need”, here interpreted as comfortable though not extravagant living. This does not imply lowering growth but equitable and inclusive growth. Maoism will not be stopped by lower growth but by redefining it. And poverty and hunger will not disappear or basic needs be met by extolling life on the margin till proletarian revolution enables some to be more equal than others.

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