Impressions of Singrauli written by the late Richard Douthwaite in Chapter 13 of THE GROWTH ILLUSION – a book written after a visit to India which included time spent with Winin Pereira at the Centre for Holistic Studies in Bandra, Mumbai – pictures added.
The lack of a proper system of checks and balances meant that anyone whose land was required for, say, an opencast mine or a dam was displaced with minimal compensation and little attempt at resettlement; if they protested they were branded as anti-national.
One of the worst examples of government companies running out of control is in Singrauli, an ancient tribal princely state between the Mirzapur district in Uttar Pradesh and the Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh. Until thirty years ago Singrauli was almost untouched by modern industry and its people made their living by grazing animals, collecting forest produce, and a blend of fixed and shifting cultivation.
In 1961 the opening of the Rihand dam to generate electricity undermined all that. Nearly 200,000 people lost their land as the dam’s waters rose – their villages were flooded without notice as the easiest way of making sure they moved quickly away No-one knows where 50,000 of them went, but the rest settled on the only land they could get, the valley sides.
The next step in the development programme was to build an aluminium smelter to use the power the dam was generating. This required the construction of a railway line to bring in the alumina. Other chemical factories, such as one making sodium hydroxide, also moved in. Then, in the late sixties, coal was found in the narrow valleys, and huge opencast mines were opened to extract it, and, rather than haul it away, three `superthermal’ power stations were built close by. Three more even larger ones are under construction today.
As Suresh Sharma wrote in the Lokayan Bulletin in 1986:
Bare statistics hardly convey the anguish and trauma of the suffering. To begin with, the people accepted terrible hardship in the innocent belief that it was for the greater good of all. But uprooting of homes has become a permanent feature of life in Singrauli. People have been displaced from their homes as many as six times in twenty years. And this has happened as a part of what is supposed to be planned development. The near absence of the most elementary concern for human decency makes the hardship unbearably humiliating. People are driven out of their homes like cattle and dumped anywhere, even in pouring rain …
With each passing year, the world around appears to the inhabitants of Singrauli less and less within their control and comprehension. Forests have disappeared as the reach of the Forest Department and contractors extended into the hinterland … to satisfy the demand for timber in the large cities … but the small cultivators and the landless, for whom the forest has been an unfailing refuge for food and fuel since time immemorial, have to bribe or steal wood even to cremate their dead (and) women and children have to spend more and more time foraging for fuel to cook the family evening meal.
(p238) Penetration of the modern market into the hinterland has undermined both the viability and legitimacy of local crafts and skills. The massive ecological disturbances entailed by large-scale mining and power generation have created serious problems of soil erosion and pollution. Benefits that flow from coal mining, power generation and timber felling … have become the prerogative of the better-off sections of society and the large urban centres. Local inhabitants are expected to be content with paying the social and cultural costs entailed in development.
During a visit to Singrauli in 1988, its muddy hillsides, bare except for an occasional lopped tree, gave me the impression of a First World War battlefield. Slums and shanties surround the aluminium works, although further away there are smart housing colonies, complete with schools and hospitals. These are almost exclusively for the workers imported from the plains: very few of the tribals have been able to get jobs with the industries that have moved in. `Outsiders are taking the jobs and the tribals’ land,’ a social activist, Prembhai, told me. `This area is going to be the energy capital of India, but its people are not.’
There are many public projects like Singrauli in India and, without exception, they have involved the taking of resources away from the poor. This has convinced many Indians that it was not enough for Nehru to restrict private enterprise to avoid its harmful consequences. State enterprises with the same goal as capitalism – economic growth, the increase in output above all else – can be equally bad, or perhaps worse, as once the state is involved directly there is no-one to adjudicate between the exploiters and the oppressed.
Economic growth is a new colonialism draining resources away from those who need them most, says Vandana Shiva, and looking around Singrauli, with its yawning gulf between the prosperous newcomers and the tribals they have displaced, you can see what she means.
Next, news from Anne about the Essar protest in Singrauli