Time a resource curse got lifted

Take a map of India. Now mark the districts with forest wealth, where the rich and dense tree cover is found. Then overlay on it the sources of streams and rivers that feed us, our water wealth.

Upon this, further locate mineral deposits—iron ore, coal, bauxite, all things nice that make economies rich. Don’t stop here.

Mark on all this wealth another indicator: districts where the poorest people of our country live. These are also tribal districts. So you will find a complete match. The richest lands are where the poorest people live. Now complete this cartography of the country with the colour red. These are the very districts Naxalites roam, where the government admits it is battling its own people, who use the gun to terrorize and kill. Here is a lesson of bad development we clearly need to learn from.

Let’s configure this map with events of the last few weeks. Madhu Koda was chief minister of Jharkhand, a mineral-and-forest-rich but poor-people state, for about a year. Today, enforcement agencies are unearthing a mother of all scams—Rs 4,000 crore, and counting, of illegal assets he and his associates looted from the state. This is roughly a fifth of the state’s annual budget. More importantly, this enormous wealth came from the same minerals that never made his people rich.

It does not end here. This past month, when the BJP government in Karnataka was brought to its knees by defiant legislators who wanted the head of the chief minister, we did not connect this episode with the cartography of India. The Reddy brothers—Gali Janardhana Reddy, the tourism minister of Karnataka and his brother, Gali Karunakara Reddy, the revenue minister of the B S Yeddyurappa government, are mining barons. Their wealth and power comes from rapacious mining in the similar rich-poor districts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The Reddy brothers’ fiefdom, Bellary district, produces some 20 per cent of the country’s iron ore. The ore is mined with little or no consideration to environmental safeguards. Water in the region runs red because of mine discharge, the land has been mauled, forests have vanished and people’s livelihood devastated. Bellary has the largest number of registered private aircraft, but ranks third from the bottom in the human development index of Karnataka, with 50 per cent literacy level—a shame for an otherwise progressive state. The Reddy brothers (like Madhu Koda) are products of the extraordinary wealth of regions we still call poor. Why, then, are we surprised when Naxalites profit from the anger of local people, witnesses to the loot of their land?

The problem is we have never taken seriously the issue of sharing wealth with the people, whose land it is. This is not part of the development mandate. Take forests. Some 60 per cent of the country’s dense and most bio-diverse and economically rich forests are found in these tribal districts. This is where the magnificent tigers are found. Ask again: If there is extraordinary wealth, why are the people who live here so poor?

The fact is we have never built a development model for natural resources, which is sustainable and also can benefit local economies and people. The first phase of development was when the state extracted and exploited the forests. Large areas were handed over to the paper and pulp industry, much like what’s happening with minerals today; swathes of dense forests were cut, land was denuded to build the economic wealth of the country. But nothing was shared with local people. This was the forest wealth that built fortunes of governments and private companies. But not its people.

Then came the phase of conservation. The nation decided forests had to be protected; tigers and other wild animals had to be safeguarded. But instead of building an economic model which shared the benefits of conservation with people, the State once again marginalized them. Forests, went the belief, had to be protected from the people who lived on these lands. Today the callous implementation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which does not allow (rightly in many cases) diversion of forestland for non-forest purposes, has become the single biggest reason for anger and violence in the region.

See, while forests are cleared for mines, or power or industrial projects, what is delayed and discounted is the little forestland local people need to build a school, a water tank or an access road. Worse, the wealth of the forests is never used to build their economies. Conservation of the tiger happens on their lands, on their backs, with little benefit to them. Are we still surprised at their anger?

This needs to change, and there are avenues. Some years ago, the Supreme Court passed an important order regarding the sharing of the mineral wealth with people. Today, there are new imperatives, national and global, such as protecting forests for water, or climate, security. Can these enable renewed futures? Can we change the rich land-poor people cartography of India? Let’s discuss this the next time.

—Sunita Narain