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Home / Opinion / Columns /  The wide ramifications of a budding bulldozer raj

After open hostilities were over and the conflict in the Balkans had ended, Bosnia Herzegovina tried to revive its economy with the support of the international community, and its leadership unveiled a programme called the Bulldozer Initiative. The metaphor was carefully chosen; as part of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina had rules and procedures that stifled all innovation; a clean start was needed. The Vietnamese had doi moi (restoration), Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union had spoken of perestroika (restructuring), but in rebuilding its economy, Bosnia Herzegovina deployed the bulldozer. Its aim was to ride headlong and crush regulations inspired by the Soviet-era which had hobbled its economy. While Bosnia Herzegovina remained on edge, the initiative captured the imagination of planners and voluminous reports were written by various development banks.

The Bosnian bulldozer initiative at least intended to build something new. But when bulldozers are used in the real world, they often behave as a bull does in a china shop. The mechanical beast rampages through a landscape untrammelled, crushing everything within sight, often impervious to the wreckage. You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, as Robert Louis Stevenson said in 1897. Levelling the ground becomes the priority so that something new can be built. The aim is marketed as a ‘developmental goal’, but frequently, the intent is to punish. Leaders who prefer show over substance and who rely on demagoguery are seen to love bulldozers.

During his short recent visit to India, without displaying any awareness of the irony, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the Sabarmati Ashram one day and posed with Gandhi’s charkha, or spinning wheel, attempting to spin yarn. It is something at which he has been rather adept, both as a former journalist and as a politician. And the next day, he visited a JCB factory that makes earth-moving equipment, including bulldozers, in India. Johnson was keen to boost British business abroad and seemed desperate to show strong commercial ties with India. The UK needs a trade agreement with India to convince voters back home that the world is waiting to sign trade pacts with Britain now that it is unfettered and released from the shackles of the EU. But Johnson either failed to notice or ignored the fact that the company’s bulldozers were used the same week to flatten so-called illegal structures in the Jahangirpuri area of Delhi. If the demolition brigade didn’t meet all its targets, it was partly because veteran Communist leader Brinda Karat turned up to stop the destruction, though India’s top court also ordered a halt the same day.

In recent years, state governments in two states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party have used bulldozers either to remove encroachments or as a form of collective punishment against people of a minority group. By continuing to do business in India, where JCB machines are put to dubious uses, the company runs the reputation risk of being seen as complicit in human rights abuses. For cheering the company and ignoring the political context, Johnson faced ridicule in the British parliament.

Companies cannot wash their hands saying they’re doing legitimate business or complying with the rules. They have to understand the legal risks. In 2003, a Caterpillar bulldozer operated by an Israeli driver in Occupied Territories ran over Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old peace activist who was protesting Israeli actions in Palestine. The circumstances of her death have remained in dispute: Corrie’s supporters believe she was deliberately targeted; the Israeli defence forces conducted an inquiry and concluded that the death was an accident, since the operator could not see her from the cabin. Corrie’s family sued Israel for a token amount, but successive Israeli courts upheld the military’s conclusions. Caterpillar still faces criticism for its role.

To be sure, the recent surge in the use of bulldozers in India is not unique, nor unprecedented. Bulldozers have been used for long to ‘beautify’ cities by destroying the ramshackle belongings of the poor. Slum demolitions seem like a favourite pastime of municipalities and reveal a poor understanding of the informal capital the poor have, as the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has shown. But as the Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen has noted, such exclusion through expulsions perpetuates inequality and hurts the economy. Indeed, during India’s Emergency, bulldozers became a symbol of state power as they razed what were described as ‘illegal structures’ in April 1976. When local residents protested, the police opened fire, and as many as 20 people may have died in the Turkman Gate massacre.

Governments in a hurry to achieve development that don’t want to listen to affected communities appear especially fond of the no-nonsense approach of bulldozers. They do help flatten the landscape. And when that’s too difficult, then, as the Gujarat government did during Johnson’s visit, they drape white sheets along major highways to hide poverty. Poverty removal, it would seem, has become a marketing exercise. An eyesore can simply be removed by driving a bulldozer over it.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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