When development brings loss

Pulapre Balakrishnan

Sometime in the 1990s the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar produced  a text titled ‘Encountering development’. It was searing account of the attack on the native peoples of his continent by the power elites who had commandeered it. An Indian economist nourished by the idea of the liberating impact on the country of the Green Revolution and conscious of the role of the policies of the Nehru era in ending over a century of stagnation under colonialism I had not given it much importance at that time. So it came as surprise to read of events in a corner of Kerala that corresponded quite closely, albeit on a far smaller scale, to what Escobar was alluding to. In the village of Keezhattur in Kerala’s Kannur District a section of farmers is holding out against the announced, but yet to be implemented, acquisition of their farm land. This is to enable a bypass for the national highway that already exists. Long-cultivated farmland is to be layered over with concrete to construct a motorable road. The farmers agitating against the acquisition have come together under the banner Vayalkillikal which translates to ‘Birds of the field’, flagging the assault on nature that it represents. They speak not only of the economic loss that the acquisition means to them but their opposition to the loss of habitat, water sources and other natural capital that they value for its own sake.  

            Two aspects pertaining to the situation must be stated at the outset. First, not all the farmers are unwilling to sell their land. Secondly, there is a strong political presence of a political party, the CPM, which is not only aggressively abetting the land acquisition but also attempting to break the opposition to it. No action has been left uncomtemplated. The samara pandal, a temporary shelter from the heat, erected at the site by the farmers agitating against the takeover was burned down and the house of Suresh, their leader, was stoned at night by goons who made a cowardly getaway on motorcycles. That the opponents of the agitation are members of the CPM, which rules Kerala today, gives them an unfair advantage. Under the circumstances it must take immense courage to just mount an agitation. The malayalam media is often not just close to but actually part of the political establishment. High economic rewards are said to be associated with managing the transfer of the land to the final builder and there is the ever-present threat of violence. The present government has not shown itself to be sympathetic to those who wish to hold out. It has not even publicly asked that peace be maintained, leave alone restrain its cadres on the ground. All this is of a piece with the general attitude of the CPM towards those who oppose its plans. It was observed at Nandigram, West Bengal in 2007 when the government of Buddhadev Bhattacharya had tried to acquire farm land to be handed over to an Indonesian chemical firm.    

            Is it absolutely necessary to build a bypass through the paddy fields of Keezhattur? By at least one account it is not. The Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, which as its name suggests is a body devoted to bringing scientific reasoning to bear on public issues, has presented to the Kerala government an alternative. This involves building an elevated expressway that would leave the paddy fields of Keezhattur undamaged. The government must treat this proposal with seriousness and educate the public on all aspects of the issue. The point to note is that a north-south highway across Kerala already exists. For a state that is not particularly wide, the coverage of this existing road should be deemed good enough given the environmental damage that a new one would entail. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) responsible for highway construction in the country ought to be sensitive to both the geographies of the different regions and the aspirations of the people who populate them. Insistence on a uniform national standard for our highways is a form of dogmatism. It makes little sense to insist on roads of the same specification in Kerala with its fragile ecology of laterite formations and scattered population and the less densely populated alluvial plains of northern India. We should aim at the highest attainable quality of road across the country but cut according to the lay of the land.        

        At Keezhattur the local CPM cadres have dubbed the protest against the land acquisition as ‘anti-development’. This is proclaimed on billboards at periodical intervals leading upto the fields all the way from the main road. It is abject propaganda. The agitating farmers have categorically stated that they are not against roads, only that they wish to avoid to the destruction of not just cropland but an entire eco-system that encompasses the western ghats, the hillocks and food-producing wetlands. They have also stated a moral responsibility to future generations. While much  of this might appear mere sentimentality to the hard-boiled economist even he is likely to ask the straight question “What awaits those who reach the northern extremity of the state once this bypass has been built?” This is not been asked yet leave alone answered. Keezhattur is already close to a highway to which there is a motorable road, though perhaps a somewhat narrow one. But a narrower access to the highway is the price you would have to pay if you want to conserve natural capital, and a set of farmers has already indicated that they are ready to pay the price. But may be even the farmers are not morally entitled to take the final call in this matter. There is always the greater common good to be reckoned with that limits the claims of private ownership. We are all only trustees of the natural world. The paddy fields of Keezhattur are the commonwealth of the people of India to be preserved as a source of food, for which by the way a road is not a substitute.

               It is indeed difficult to read the mind of the Pinarayi Vijayan government on this matter. It has remained aloof when it has not been disingenuous in its response. The Home Minister has said that the state government is merely responding to the demands of the NHAI. Well, it must not do so passively. It must not grant consent to the project in its present form. At a uniquely non-party political rally held at Keezhattur on March 25 Mr. Suresh Gopi, Rajya Sabha member from Kerala, said that he had spoken to the national leadership of his party, the BJP, and that they are by no means adamant on the issue. Further, in an extraordinary gesture he offered to “touch the feet” of the Chief Minister to seek a review of the present plan. Everything – economics, natural conservation and concern for food production in a state where paddy cultivation could become extinct if current trends continue – points to the need for statesmanship on the part of Mr. Vijayan. He could listen to his party members and, wielding state power, win the battle against an unarmed group of agitators or he could hear the birds of the field at Keezhattur and win the hearts and minds of his people.