By B.G. Verghese
Nostalgia represents a longing for both the near past, such as one’s childhood,and the more distant past with its wellsprings of cultural and spiritual heritage. This is not unnatural except when it tends to pre-empt the future or build on past images of glory or victimhood leading either to arrogance and chauvinism or self-doubt and a desire for revenge on the other. Hindutvadisand radical Islamists represent the first categorywhile the other, sometimes unknowingly,remain rooted in the status quo for fear of change.
In a traditional society still emerging into a modern era, which in some ways is the case in India, various elements tend to usurp the role of guardians of disadvantaged and marginalised classes such as the landless, tribals and forest dwellers. This becomes the social or electoral constituency on which they thriveand without which they would feel deprived, even disempowered. So do-gooders, individually or collectively, can sometimesunconsciously perpetuate themselves for fear of otherwise being left out in the cold.
The current effort of the Congress to amend the Constitution though ordinary legislation to provide quota reservations in governmental promotions for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe personnel is a case in point. It is masking vote-bank politics in assuming a neo-guardianship role for these categories way and beyond the constitutional guarantee of primary reservation to government servants at entry level as part of a policy of affirmative action. Extending this formula to promotions instead of leaving upward mobility to merit, will dilute good governance, which is surely a better instrument for creating equal opportunity and a just society. Not to be handicapped in the race for votes, the SP and DMK have joined others in demanding reservation of merit promotions for OBCs as well. This is likely to perpetuate a culture of “backwardness” and social divisionsrather than obliterate such false distinctions.
Gujars are seeking tribal status to benefit from reservations that have advantaged Meenas. In the Northeast and elsewhere, ethnicity and denominational labels are being asserted as a means of gaining preference over others. The Shiv Sena roots for the Marathi manoos and so on. These are dangerous trends. The recent flare up in Assam was less a manifestation of resistance to alleged illicit immigration than a struggle over land and forests, a synonym for jobs. If no other employment is generated, the land and forests must provide, as always in traditional societies. Territorial demands for homelands and the eviction of “outsiders” are intended to ensure that demographic factors do not adversely affect the electoral balance and political outcomes.
The major threat of “nostalgia” comes from fierce opposition to land acquisition and conversion of forest lands for industrialisation through the development of mines, dams, connectivity, power,townships and other infrastructure. An NSS survey done around 2004-05 found that some 40 per cent of all agriculturists wished to give up farming which they found was no longer economic. They preferred to sell or lease their lands and use the proceeds to educate their children and give them the chance that they themselves were denied. The alternative was to invest in some small business or service enterprise. Failing these, the option has been distress migration by the tens of million, first seasonal, then permanent, to take a chance at the lottery of life the big cities offer, not excluding beggary, crime and prostitution and life in noisome shanty towns.
At earlier times compensation and rehabilitation were unsatisfactory. Things have steadily improved and those impacted are being handsomely compensated, offered training to avail of new opportunities and made stakeholders with entitlement to share in the future stream of project benefits. Yet people will not move, fed on sermons eulogising nostalgia by vested interests and busybodies, the grounds ranging from sentiment to unreason as evident in many recent cases. Investments, development of infrastructure, growth and employment have been seriously impeded and, ultimately, national stability and security endangered.
The so-called coal scam is a case in point. Apart from the time it might have taken to move from the prior policy of coal block allocation to auction, allocations were made to stimulate investments and provide the basic coal requirement for power, steel and cement projects. That state governments should have recommended allocations tied to end-use projects within their own boundaries was no surprise and no crime. What has been faulted is that only one out of 57 such coal blocks allocated to private parties for private end-use has commenced operations five to seven years after the event, resulting in speculative transfers and windfall gains. The explanation offered is that an allocation is only the starting point for seeking environmental and forest clearance, land acquisition, compensation and an R&R package, with rules and even laws sometimes taking retrospective effect.
The real reason, however, is that the country’s project clearance procedures are so cumbersome, sequential and dilatory that the whole process may take several years with intervening stay orders, agitations and other delays. It does not appear to have registered on the political and administrative class that time is a most precious resource and that the “presumptive loss” from the opportunity cost of delay would outweigh that of all the real or imagined scams put together, raised to the power of ten.
Delayed or aborted projects and start-ups such as of the Vedanta bauxite mine at Niyamgiri and related aluminium refinery expansion at Lanjigarh, POSCOs 12 m tonne steel plant in Orissa and the Koodamkulam and Jaitapur nuclear power stations constitute major setbacks to national development and employment generation. In most cases, nostalgia for land and forests and keeping tribal people as they are represent aspects of land and forest nostalgia. With Vedanta ousted,those whose hearts bled for the Dongaria Khondshave lost interest in the fate of those unfortunate tribals whose lives would otherwise have been hugely transformed without harm to the environment.
Poverty is an enemy of the environment. Land is limited but population has multiplied more than threefold since Independence and is still growing. India is fast urbanising as a development necessity and the land can no more support such numbers. People need to get off the land and take to non-farm occupations but “nostalgists” bind them to the land. Some agricultural land will and must be diverted, with higher farm productivity providing food security. The proposed new Land Acquisition Act needs to be liberalised and the strange fetish of preserving large areas of degraded forest land from being productively exploited is plain foolish while nostalgic land for land compensation policies are, exceptions apart, impractical.
India needs to break from nostalgia that is acquiring viral proportions. Instead of allowing and encouraging the Government to create more employment – without which social explosions threaten – the BJP irresponsibly blocked both Parliament and governance. In the circumstances, the Government must now act decisively to move the country forward on the path of reform, sadly but firmly,by Ordinance. Dogs may bark, but the caravan must move on.