Questions posed by a movement

Originally published: The Research Unit for Political Economy (R.U.P.E.) on October 4, 2022 by RUPE (more by The Research Unit for Political Economy (R.U.P.E.)) (Posted Oct 08, 2022)

Over a year ago, we wrote about a protest movement going on in the village of Silger, in Sukma district in the south of Chhattisgarh, against the setting up of a police camp in their village.[1] (We will not repeat here the details given in that article.) As we write this, the movement has completed more than 16 months; and it is still continuing. When we consider the life conditions of the participants, this fact is particularly notable:

These are all poor Adivasi villagers who take time off from their daily-wage labour or farming, students who come when school permits, or women who bring their children because they have nowhere else to leave them. On down days the numbers may be a few dozen, on special days the number swells to thousands.[2]

Moreover, the struggle at Silger “has sparked off similar struggles elsewhere across the districts of Bijapur, Sukma and Dantewada as well as northern Bastar/Kanker in Chhattisgarh, protesting against the security camps that have colonised the landscape….”[3] People perceive a link between the setting up of these camps and the drive by the corporate sector to capture the natural resources of the region. This is significant.

Meanwhile, over the last year, Adivasis in the northern part of Chhattisgarh have come out in opposition to coal mining in the Hansdeo Arand forest region – a region of great biodiversity which contains “the largest un-fragmented forests in Central India, consisting of pristine Sal (Shorea robusta) and teak forests.”[4] The opposition has taken the form of a broad popular protest movement, involving various sections of the people, with padyatras across the region and protests in cities. While proposals for mining the Hansdeo Arand forest have faced opposition for over a decade, a sustained and broad movement has only now emerged.

In contrast with the remarkable kisan protest in Delhi, which too was sustained over a year, the protests at Silger and Hansdeo Arand have received meagre press coverage nationally. These regions are less accessible to the national press. Several well-known democratic activists who have come Silger have been detained and prevented from visiting the village.

However, these movements are at least equally worthy of attention and solidarity. Background material and reports on these movements could be found in articles by Nandini Sundar,[5] Ashutosh Bharadwaj,[6] Malini Subramaniam and Pushpa Rokde,[7] Alok Prakash Putul,[8] and others, as well as on the Twitter accounts of Alok Shukla and Bela Bhatia. A fact-finding team from Delhi which visited the region also recently released a report titled “The Siege of Silger”, linking the Silger movement to the broader context.

This situation is not unique to Chhattisgarh; indeed, in various parts of India, particularly central and eastern India, there are movements by Adivasis and other peasants against corporate projects, the associated forcible acquisition of land, and the destruction of the local environment. The examples are too numerous to cite. While the movement against police camps has its own specificity, it is linked with the movements against land grabs for industrial, mining, and real estate projects because the police camps ultimately serve to crush opposition to those land grabs.

For an alternative pattern of development

Objectively viewed, these movements are not only against something (such as corporate land-grab, environmental destruction, militarisation). In the very assertion by  ordinary rural folk of their rights over their  resources, these movements are also implicitly for something else, a completely different pattern of development. When the affected people articulate in their own language the alternative type of development they do want, that articulation is suppressed in a myriad ways.

At the same time, the thinking of the general public is shaped by the dominant ideology. Political power is not only the ability to wield a baton or fire a gun, but also to shape the way most people think. This shaping process is carried out daily by a whole intellectual-cultural army, ranging from journalists and media barons to university professors and politicians. As Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”[9]

Hence it is all the more necessary to assert the alternative.

There is a link between the extent of people’s sovereignty over the land and their ability to determine the course of development itself. It is critical to understand the interlinkages between different aspects of economic and cultural development. These tie together questions of composition of production, choice of technology, employment, distribution, the environment, social life and political power.

Let us look at these interlinkages in the present corporate-led ‘development’ process.

1. In the given situation of widespread poverty, only a narrow section of society has sufficient income to be considered ‘consumers’ at all by private corporations. (A recent study estimates this section at less than 15 per cent of the population, with an alternative estimate as low as 2 per cent.[10]) Private corporations find it profitable to produce for this section, not for the whole population.

2. The goods that this section consumes are produced with more advanced technology. Thus this technology employs fewer workers per rupee of investment or per rupee of output. In the reigning system of production, a small share of the ‘value added’ in production goes to the workers as wages; the remaining, much larger, share goes to the capitalists.

3. The goods that are produced tend to be more resource-intensive (in production as well as  transportation). As this requires new projects for extracting those resources, it leads to further displacement of peasants and destruction of the environment. Environmental destruction further impoverishes those whose sustenance depends on that environment. Social economic bonds of the community helped it to survive many a calamity in the past. After displacement, the villagers are turned into mere social driftwood, easy prey, willing to work at any wage — if they are lucky enough to get work. In these ways, the ‘development’ process reproduces and intensifies the poverty and inequality with which it started.[11]

Now let us compare this with what is being destroyed:

1. The rulers treat the people who are being displaced in Chhattisgarh and other places as merely inhabitants of the region, persons parked on the land, standing in the way of ‘development’.

But these people are not only inhabitants but producers, predominantly peasant producers. In the main, they produce goods for their own subsistence, and small quantities for exchange; some also labour for wages. Both the quantity and the market value of the goods they produce is low. Hence productivity in this region, whether measured in terms of ‘value added per worker’ or ‘value added per hectare of land’, is low.

2. The corporations which are displacing the local people will generate a much higher value added per worker or per hectare of land than does the production by the people who are to be displaced. At the same time, the corporations will generate much less employment than was earlier generated by the low-productivity activity on that land. As we noted earlier, the benefit of the additional value-added is received largely by the capitalists who own the corporation, though a relatively small number of organised sector workers, blue collar and white collar, do get jobs. Over time, with automation, even this small number will fall. (Since the rulers are aware that this steady destruction of employment by both displacement and automation will create an explosive political situation, they have been planning to pacify the population with some sort of ‘Universal Basic Income’ scheme, but the amount will be a pittance.)

3. The goods the existing producers make are for their own consumption or are largely consumed by others locally. The goods which the corporations produce are for distant, higher income markets, whether domestic or foreign. The existing economic system privileges distant markets over the local ones, wealthier consumers over working people, luxury goods over basic needs, reflecting precisely the fact that the working people do not have control over the process of development.

4. An important feature of the process described above is that it does not involve a stepping up of the productivity of the existing producers in their present activity. Rather, they are ousted as producers, or their output is lowered even further, further suppressing their subsistence level, and the new activity is carried on by a different, smaller, set of workers. There is no way the existing producers can be absorbed in the new activity, apart from a handful working in peripheral roles as contract workers.

All this, however, is not to idealise or romanticise the existing subsistence production, from which the producers often are unable to draw even a subsistence. Often they are forced to hunt for work on any terms, far from their homes; such additional forms of employment too do not by themselves yield sufficient income for subsistence, so the various members of the family have to stitch together a quilt of varied insecure, low-paid employments.

The question then ought to be: in what ways can the activity of the existing producers be made more productive, without displacing them, reducing total employment or destroying the environment?

What people themselves say

Subsistence producers themselves have concrete views on this question, drawn from their own life-experiences and labour. Some glimpses of this can be found in the Chhattisgarh Human Development Report (CHDR) of 2005, an unusual document. It was prepared by soliciting reports from the people of over 19,000 villages across the 16 districts of the state. In these reports, people have materially spelled out the extent of their dependence on common property resources such as forests and pasture lands, and the harm being done to their productive activity by corporate pollution of water and land, felling of forests, encroachments, and displacement by corporate projects. Moreover, they have spelled out certain steps that need to be taken to protect and secure natural resources, and to increase their agricultural productivity and related non-agricultural production.

The CHDR brings out how the forests, and more generally the commons, are a major source of subsistence. Villagers report that they gather food items such as fruits, roots and shoots directly available from trees, and animal products such as honey and meat; raw material for the production of soap, oil and liquor; ‘nistaar’ items such as fuel wood, fodder and timber; medicinal plants and herbs such as safed musli, brahmi and ashwagandha; minor forest produce for the market such as tendu patta, sal seeds, and wax; and minor minerals and water. Chhattisgarh accounts for about 20 percent of the total production of tendu patta in the country. Other produce gathered for the market include mahua flowers and seeds, harra, bahera, mehul leaves, tamarind, lac, gum and katha. These are mainly used to make brews, toys, disposable (and biodegradable) leaf plates, etc. Tamarind and katha are used in food items.

The district report from Korba states: “There are at least 23 Minor Forest Produce (MFP) and another 32 types of roots and herbs that people collect from the forests. After agriculture, forests are the largest source of income. More than 60 percent of the villagers regard forest produce and labour in forest related work as their main sources of income. The absence of irrigation means that people are unable to sow a kharif crop. This increases dependence on forest produce for additional income. Almost 70 percent of the annual income comes from MFPs like aavla, bahera, harra, dhavala, kusum, mahua leaf and medicinal plants.” The exact percentages here are not the point; the point is that for the local people, even in a district with substantial mining activity and consequently the highest ‘per capita income’ in the state, forests are crucial to their subsistence.

Forest dependent communities are legally entitled to access forests for grazing, limited by the carrying capacity of forests. They are permitted to collect (free of cost) dry and fallen fuel wood and fodder. In the rural areas of Chhattisgarh, the report claims that non-commercial fuel wood and animal waste continue to be the main source of energy for cooking and household activities. Women, who are the main collectors of this resource, often have to traverse a large area for the purpose. Most villages have common grazing and pasture lands for animals. In the plains, paddy straw is used as fodder for cattle. In the forested belts, animals depend on the forest for fodder too.

However, the subsistence of these subsistence farmers is under many-sided attack from the overall process of maldevelopment. This maldevelopment has accelerated under neoliberal rule. Grazing and pasture lands (generally common lands and forests) are getting degraded, shrinking, or being encroached on, pollution from mining is covering agricultural fields with dust and polluting water sources, and finally, there is large-scale displacement for different projects of the private corporate sector  or the Government.

A large number of Village Reports prepared by the people state that protecting or securing natural resources should be the first priority, with the participation of the people in different forms. They suggest that the Government take help from them in order to stop illegal felling of forest trees. Village after village expresses the need for irrigation; the low water level is the most common concern after the issue of tree felling. Villagers suggest ways to increase irrigation, identifying sources of water as well as ways to store and harvest water. They are eager to extend their help and labour for such activities. Stop dams, check dams, small canals find mention in the Reports as possible water conservation mechanisms. In order to effectively utilise these structures, support for lift irrigation schemes would be required.

The people are aware of the multiple advantages of water harvesting, which can be used for domestic purposes, for fisheries and for ground water recharging. Many reports identify sites which can be used for water conservation, by constructing check dams and for watershed development. They also identify small rivers and tanks that can be utilised without depletion of water sources.

Village Reports call for the better utilisation of ‘wasteland’ and barren lands as common

property resources, managed by the local people and made more productive. They say fallow, open access and common lands can be used in various ways that can benefit the village community as a whole. They ask for training and help in order to increase the productivity of the land.

Nor is their vision restricted to agriculture or gathering of produce. Reports from every district also ask for assistance for small industries and home industries based on forest produce and other renewable natural resources, rather than industries based on the extraction of minerals. These would allow the addition of value locally, rather than the sale of the raw material to others to process elsewhere. Many of these goods may also be consumed locally.

In the context of different types of industrial development, one should note that large corporations’ activities require large undivided plots of land. By contrast, small and micro industries’ land requirements may be more easily spread out over multiple, non-contiguous plots, avoiding displacement of existing agricultural production.

Moreover, many small and micro industries are non-polluting or less polluting than large industries. Such industries would provide employment to local people, particularly during the slack agricultural season. By improving local incomes, these activities would also enhance local demand for goods. (By contrast, take Korba, the district with the highest per capita income in Chhattisgarh: once the income from mining and quarrying is subtracted, the district income halves. But the mining activities are carried out by corporations, without involving the rural people. While the income of these corporations is included in the calculation of district income, it does not go to the pockets of people in the district. It should also be remembered that once the minerals are exhausted, the mines leave no continuing economic activity, only an environmental liability.)

In brief, these reports give glimpses of a pattern of development based on maximising employment while at the same time increasing the productivity of that employment; developing local capabilities, meeting the needs of local consumption and expanding local demand; protecting the social fabric of the communities of the region; protecting the environment, and to the extent possible reversing some of its degradation, while drawing on it for subsistence; and increasing incomes in a widely-dispersed way, reaching those at the very bottom.[12] Of course these are just glimpses; any such pattern, in order to be viable, cannot be a “small-is-beautiful” local model; it would have to be part of a much larger, socialised venture nationwide, which would include large industry and a national democratic plan.

However, as long as the ordinary people do not exercise sovereignty over the sources of wealth and the means of production, such a pattern of development is ruled out. It was none other than the BJP government of the newly-established state of Chhattisgarh that published the Chhattisgarh Human Development Report quoted above, in 2005, with a foreword by chief minister Raman Singh. This was the very year that the Salwa Judum, a State-sponsored vigilante movement against ‘left extremism’, was launched in Chhattisgarh. It was also the year the state government started a spree of signing Memorandums of Understanding with corporate firms interested capturing in the region’s natural wealth.

The Salwa Judum was succeeded by the official Operation Green Hunt, followed by similar campaigns with different names, up to the present. Through successive changes of power at the state and the Centre, the BJP and the Congress between them have intensified the capture and extraction of the state’s mineral wealth, the destruction of the economy of the existing peasant producers there, and the militarisation of the entire region for this purpose.

The existing model of development is organically linked to the political power of those who benefit from it. The same applies to any alternative model of development.


[1] “Two Dharnas”, July 30, 2021, https://rupeindia.wordpress.com/2021/07/30/two-dharnas/

[2] Nandini Sundar, “A Year into Silger’s Peaceful Protest, Demands for Justice Remain Unmet”, The Wire, May 17, 2022. https://thewire.in/rights/bastar-silger-killing-peaceful-protest-one-year

[3] Ibid.

[4] Report of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; cited in Rishika Singh, “Explained: The battle over mining in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo forest”, Indian Express, May 29, 2022.

[5] “In Bastar’s ‘Shaheen Bagh’, a Youth-Led Movement Quietly Perseveres”, The Wire, July 7, 2021, and “A Year into Silger’s Peaceful Protest, Demands for Justice Remain Unmet”, The Wire, May 17, 2022.

[6] “One Year of Protests: The Emergence of a Civil Society in Chhattisgarh”, May 17, 2022.

[7] “Silger protest taps into wider anger in Bastar over security camps coming up in the name of roads”, Scroll.in, June 18, 2021.

[8] “Indian tribes fight to save forest homes from mining”, https://www.climatechangenews.com/2022/07/29/indian-tribes-fight-to-save-forest-homes-from-coal-mining/

[9] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology.

[10] Shuomitro Chatterjee, Arvind Subramanian, “India’s Inward (Re)turn: Is It Warranted? Will It Work?”, Ashoka University, Policy Paper No. 1, October 2020.

[11] Many of these points have been made by Amit Bhaduri in several writings, e.g. “Predatory Growth”, Economic and Political Weekly, April 19, 2008.

[12] Some of these questions were very much part of the discussion among economists and political activists in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, Amit Bhaduri has once again drawn attention to these questions in a number of articles and papers; some of these are collected in Malignant Growth, Aakar Books, 2016. However, he does so from a different political framework.

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