A meeting, significant in the context of the ongoing and future battleground of industrialization and protests against it, took place in Thrissur, Kerala, earlier this week. It was the biennial convention of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an influential umbrella organization that seeks to primarily protect livelihood and property rights, and their close cousin, human rights.
A statement from NAPM firmly targeted the proposed land acquisition law expected to be debated in the winter session of Parliament which began on Thursday. NAPM’s assumption is that the draft law in its various incarnations has steadily been weighted towards business, that there is wilful ignorance of realities at the ground level where extreme policy coercion dominates free consent, besides concerns of loss of livelihood; and it ends in nasty business.
And so, the meeting resolved to “take forward the primary mandate of sangharsh and nirman (struggle and reconstruction) with establishment of a navnirman manch”, or a reconstruction, within NAPM. “The fight for the control over jal, jungle, zameen”—the trinity of water resources, forests and land—“by the communities will be fought tooth and nail through the gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas”. It further declared that decentralization of power is “the only way out”. This is towards a goal to strengthen panchayati raj institutions, seen both as a cure and curse of (when corrupted) from-the-ground-up empowerment and development.
For government and business to dismiss this as simple extremism would be unwise and symptomatic of denial. Organizations such as NAPM question the ongoing model of development—more precisely, the manner of execution—that creates conflict, preferring a humane approach that seeks to conflate business and development with human rights imperatives. NAPM, much like similar organizations across the country, has a council comprising those with a direct connect with their constituents. It also has among its advisors Narmada Bachao Andolan chief Medha Patkar, no pushover when it comes to extracting rights and benefits for those who risk land and livelihood to aggressively executed projects. And among special invitees are right to information champion Aruna Roy and human rights icon Binayak Sen.
It will be equally unwise to write off such organizations as Maoist ploy, though the Maoist propaganda machine plays fast and loose using any available approach, including that of piggybacking on non-Maoist protest groups. An example is a front organization whose spots have for long been clear, Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), which was for a time a co-signatory of statements with NAPM but appears to have lately been kept at arm’s length with its statements becoming increasingly violent. With its motto, “Rise! Resist! Liberate!”, RDF was also allied with Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a conglomerate of several dozen local mass movement organizations across India that was, among other things, active in raising the profile of protest against POSCO’s steel, mining and port projects in Orissa. In June, RDF circulated a detailed critique—a mix of impeccable fact and propaganda—slamming government intention in Chhattisgarh: among other things, for aiding business at the cost of destruction of local communities.
While Maoist front organizations such as RDF naturally seek to promote Maoist interest, umbrella organizations such as NAPM feed a non-violent, relatively less radical agenda. And, ironically, unlike the political and administrative establishments they battle, they rarely stray from the agenda of rights, in letter and spirit, as granted by India’s Constitution. They have also emerged as hugely influential, in effect matching or even surpassing in their own way the personality-cloaked initiatives of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal.
In early October, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh managed to stall a potentially embarrassing moment for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. He cut a firefighting deal in Gwalior with non-profit Ekta Parishad, trading a promise to fast-track the government’s land reforms and housing exercise. His talks with Parishad chairman P.V. Rajagopal stalled a march to Delhi by tens of thousands of farmers and the rural poor who were drawn for the march by the organization’s associates. In Jharkhand, the increasingly influential and quite fearless umbrella of BIRSA, or Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action, defends victims of mining and land acquisition disorders. On a smaller scale, I have also seen politically unencumbered non-government organizations battle it out with politicians, local administrations and businesses in areas as geographically apart as Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu and Kalinganagar in Orissa.
Hundreds of such organizations exist across India. They highlight the failings of India as a nation, and the easy arrogance of power. Good policymaking and business practice would be to listen, or be hurt.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.
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