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Neoliberalism and the nature of the Polavaram beast: Aijaz Ur Rahman అక్టోబర్ 11, 2012

Posted by M Bharath Bhushan in Andhra, Culture, displacement, ecology, Godavari, Identity, Koya, Polavaram, Telangana.
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Neoliberalism and the nature of the Polavaram beast: (TINA* or TATA**)

Aijaz Ur Rahman

*TINA: (There Is No Alternative; famously coined by M.Thatcher)
**TATA: (There Are Thousands of Alternatives; used by I.Wallerstein, youtube video)

“The environmental situation in India today is not about “quality of life”…but rather about the conditions of production and survival itself” (Jennifer Wenzel, 1998, writing of Mahasweta Devi’s work).


Ever since they learnt of plans for the Polavaram project, the Koya community has been aflutter with anxiety and consternation. It would not only submerge large number of Koya settlements, but parts of the Eastern Ghats forests on which many still depend. The Koya, like most Indian tribes are a reticent community, a numerically significant group transitioning to settled agriculture from hunting, subsistence from forest produce and podu (shifting) cultivation. Indignation slowly dawned from the unthinkable: “Projects that affect life and the future of our children and the tribe as a whole cannot be decided by anybody other than us” (Koya village heads’ Appeal To Withdraw Polavaram Dam, 1995, Lokayan Bulletin).

River Sileru
The Polavaram-Indirasagar project has been planned and pursued by successive A.P. state governments determined to harness the Godavari river waters, even at huge social and irreparable environmental cost. It is expected to cause the more massive displacement of people, destruction of forests and loss of livelihoods, than any other project in India.

Cynical mining depradation at Chatti village near AP-Chhattisgarh borders. Photo Syed Sybhani, ASHA

The GoAP has begun the process of awarding substantial contracts to firms spearheading construction of the dam and canal system. The tenders process has been annulled time and again amid charges of lack of transparency, arbitrariness and cronyism. Political parties and other lobbies, too, have jumped in support of the multi-purpose project ostensibly for the irrigation, hydro-power, projected water and development ‘needs’ of Eastern Andhra Pradesh. Shabbily conducted Environmental Impact Assessment reports (EIAs) have ignored many legalities and important parameters, their costing, in the haste to fulfill mandatory requirements. The unspoken strategy seems to be: ‘once the dam is built, permissions would anyway (have to) be duly awarded, after all you cannot keep a state government in the dock for inadvertence’.

In the following, I suggest that we have been exposed to ideas/ sensibilities the political class and bureaucratic machinery receive more directly_ a certain colonial administrative rationality rooted in utilitarian economic conceptions which cohere in neoliberalist state ideologies and practice today. Such rationality reinforces both global and national conceptions of development and gain, in economic theory and policy, executed and implemented by state bureaucracies and percolating down to popular understanding.

The adjective neoliberal before capitalism is understood as congruent with a generic utilitarianism (the latter simply understood as the foundational British precursor of a modern, global neoliberal capitalism. The politico-administrative rationality of recent history could be conveyed and transmitted through the numerous rules, edicts, laws and acts of colonial bureaucracies; it was/is given by the dictum of departmental procedures, by set precedents of performance permeating (especially) institutions and government. Departments like excise, forests, revenue with maximizing exigencies, or even health, epitomize these concerns. State health departments however were not concerned with revenue (with latter day exceptions asking, ‘why not’), but are concerned with elimination of disease/prolongation of life and minimization of pain. These goals too are manifest in aspects of the Millian sphere of utilitarian philosophy now effectively hijacked by capitalism. Colonialism had begun to rely on the recruitment of an exclusively British officialdom for long, before testing a Macaulayian ideology of socialization of natives. Kow-towing to the idea that ‘the government that governed least governed best’, Law and order, Forests and Excise departments began to serve as first line of offense in enclosure of resource rights and the maintenance of privileges of empire (the peace) (Richard Gott). This was achievable with an officious District Magistracy and backed by a ‘stipendiary yeoman constabulary’, all attempting ‘efficient’ coercive repression through local collaboration, surveillance and intelligence machinery.

Today, draconian legislation additionally needs stoking of majoritarian collective conscience represented by private interests wielding the ‘technologies of domination’, ordinarily vested in the state.

With authority of the universalizing rationality of science, it then becomes possible to disseminate ideas of ‘beneficence’ (often laden with sophistry), reduced to a continuum of simplicity-sophistication. Older conceptions of development and progress can be turned into ‘Grow or Die’ immediacy in capitalist economics, for popular reception and internalization by a citizen constituency. Public reception then, largely precludes need for democratic debate (the issue could well be nuclear energy, or allocations for health and education) by a civil society or other publics ill-prepared to interrogate them, i.e., many issues go largely unquestioned, uncontested (in this largest democracy). The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and its wings, the DAVP/DIPR in AP, numerous ministerial documents/publications and media inserts can be seen to play more than a benign role in such communication. The engineered consensus includes a growing, educated but largely benumbed middle class (devoid of any urge to liberation or freedom) by inveiglement of the market, its need for consumers. The socialization of a variegated cadre of specialists/professionals (usually concerned with career advancement and related concerns of pecuniary maximization) becomes intimately tied to status quoist affinity and conventionalist acceptance of imposed rules and legislation, responding to both market and governmental persuasions in predictable ways.

The writings of Foucault, Harvey and Habermas are briefly invoked to understand the state of affairs that ‘neoliberalism’ produces, and its extraordinary facility in the transformation of governments into callous entities that must have their pound of development, and people into delimited, obsessively calculative beings.

Habermas had coined the phrase “steering media” to imply that money and administrative power operate ‘relatively autonomously’ on the individual, thereby ‘uncoupling’ or effectively promoting a consciousness characterized by ‘disconnectedness’. People increasingly identify themselves and their aspirations in abstract system terms. Their legitimate needs become rooted in roles defined by the system as they begin to assume the roles of consumer and client. This disconnectedness represents a ‘colonization of the lifeworld’ performed through dictates of the economic and politico-legal system. Such colonization promotes a rationality that is instrumental in the pursuit of accumulation/consumption; it pre-empts and ‘dislodges the coherence of internal communicative action implicit in the idea of lifeworlds’. ‘In place of their real needs, arises an external framework of language, understandings and values and norms (which are system norms meant to carry out certain functions)’. The person becomes something of an automaton, a system in interaction with other systems and individuals (ignoring social, even spiritual needs). Thus, the ‘system urges and constrains behaviour into a ‘self-referential’ logic’. In other words they become characterized by alienation themselves. The theory of communicative action enables us to see and “become conscious of the difference between steering problems and problems of mutual understanding…, ‘between systemic disequilibria and lifeworld pathologies’ (italics, Habermas’ original).

Foucault had also looked at the “microphysics of power”, along with the “macropolitical question of the state” (Lemke). Exercise of state power subsumes the individual and channels his/her “conduct” (the “conduct of conduct”) in the pursuit of desired ends. The reference is to subjective knowledge and practices of citizens that “only exist within a certain regime of rationality”. The subject internalizes state knowledge and rationality, and can easily accept (for instance) that “previously ‘uncapitalized’ aspects of nature and society become internal to capital” as a matter of fact occurrence. Mentalites are shaped through memes and canards of ‘development’, the ‘national good’ via multifarious government organs, science, academia and media. Apparently benign ideologies become incorporated in (post-) colonial politico-bureaucratic rationality propagated by the state, eventually crystallizing in a political articulation of ‘majoritarian’ interests. These then tend to delegitimate any questioning of domination and state rationality by the oppressed, the dispossessed. Resistance of political tyranny and social oppression could now warrant home department interventions (surveillance, ‘surgical’ violence, drones/helicopters, whatever it takes…). The postcolonial state sustains the pressure of colonial violence during so many tribal protests and revolts in recent history. In the consciousness of media and its constituency, snuffing of subaltern lives comes to gain a scarce second take in the news (but too bad ‘the poor devils’).

Colonialism notoriously bequeathed us the gift of ‘eminent domain’, but even J.S Mill, whose views on utilitarianism influenced colonial policy, had felt the need to introduce a system of “constitutional checks” to constrain “the nature and limits of the power which [could] be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”. It seems even the architect of those ‘temples’ of modernity later regretted them as (costly) exercises in ‘giganticism’.

Adam Smith’s writing too, hardly counts as a timeless, universal wisdom; “it represents the opinion of a political economist writing in context of the land enclosures taking place in Europe”. “As peasants and lower classes were driven out into towns and cities to work” (in nascent factories), it became necessary to enlist their participation in a rational ideology that could increase the wealth of the nation.

Globally, the displacement of indigenous people now assumes the nature of a successful business mantra of enclosure and exclusion. A similar uprooting of adivasi and rural groups in the recent 20th century has been taking place unstinted in India. Bondla and Misra (2007) find estimates of people displaced (since independence) by different development projects to be between
“2,13,00,000 (Fernandes and Chaterji,1995) to 5,00,00,000 (Saxena, 1999)”. They claim that “there is agreement that dams are the single largest cause of displacement”. Behura & Mishra (1988) had described the situation arising from the Upper Indravati Dam as ‘cultural genocide’. A recurrent theme since the 18th and 19th centuries, Fenelon (1998) also wrote of ‘culturicide’ wreaked upon the plains Sioux by the American state. Citing an IIPA study confirming the 50 million estimate above, Arundhati Roy wrote: “I feel like someone who’s stumbled on a mass grave” (quoted in Rao and Stewart, 2006: 36). Such a global targeting of indigenous people is not all ‘accidental’ (because indigenous lands happened to be located amidst recently discovered resources); persistent exclusionary, racist attitudes have been at bottom, warranting explanation both at global and state levels.

In Polavaram, according to conservative government estimates, 1.76 lakh persons stand to be displaced (comprising 4.7 percent of the total 5,939 villages in the designated ‘scheduled areas’ of the country). Studies have put this figure at more than twice the number (V. Rukmini Rao; Richard Mohapatra). It does not appear a coincidence that mining and steel processing in post-Independence India began in areas with tribal populations, providing managerial solutions to production and the reproduction of (docile) labour.

One would have expected that the sobering salience of irreversible ecological harm and large scale violation of human rights, would have forced us to rethink hackneyed notions of progress and universal good, such as drive large dam plans.

Governments eyeing economic expansion intervene in productivity armed with technoeconomic fixes, astutely incorporating current critiques of state rationality through the complicity of the subjects themselves. Increasingly, from behind the fig leaf of environmental ‘sustainability’ (conservation efforts mandated by international conventions, norms and global critique), development now requires all manner of resources to be garnered nolens volens. The disconnect between (governmental) ‘theory’ and practice (Foucault, 1978, 1979) parallels the rift between a constitutionalism vs. (whimsical) pursuit of development.

The neoliberal state directs the benefits of enclosure onto select interest groups, not necessarily restricted in size. Using utilitarian arguments (‘those actions of the state are good that promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number’), a demographic majority is defended as the society against a dispossessed minority. An obvious import of this process is relegation to proletarianhood and the destruction of the proletarians’ autonomy, their freedom, their culture. Those who do own property are then conferred freedom of ‘enjoyment’, absolved from any responsibility of being the girijan’s/anyone’s ‘keeper’.

Thus, “Utilitarianism adds an economic, legislative and political dimension to an ethical concept, that of happiness and well-being”. Anjum Zubairi (M.Phil, Philosophy, HCU,1985) added:
“But in fact any form of property has to be seen in terms of its capacity to generate economic growth”, or else it would be indefensible/lack popular support. But what is it that perpetuates property/class and reinforces the status quo? Zubairi cited Bernard Williams: “What keeps stable hierarchies together is the idea of necessity, that it is somehow fore ordained that there should be these orders” (an extra-rational/economic derivation). Appropriation of privilege has always required such ordering.

Proletarianization too, is hardly a straightforward process, including what Lenin in1931 wrote, peasant groups and impoverished workers as distinct from better paid skilled workers. It could crudely be operationalised as, according to the World Bank, the difference between living on less than a dollar a day to and two dollars/per day. Semi-proletarians really represent lifetime relegation and longue duree karma. Examining policy locutions of “development for ‘betterment of the population’”, we constantly observe that this belies a social structure that restricts access to goods/services to only limited groups and classes. The disturbing widespread complacency associated with deprivation and inequality, the claim that issues of inequity are only distributional (related merely to glitches in the economic system and income) neglects other human freedoms and entitlements in fundamental ways (Sen & Dreze). Poverty and its reduction are frequently used in justification of the necessity for expansive economic growth and development.

One need not squint too hard to see that this interest turns into a virtual treadmill, lionizing entrepreneurial motivation/success and promoting necessary economic freedoms and reward structures particularly not favouring the poor, cornering a large proportion of GDP. This sets in motion accumulation cycles dependent on fossil fuel use and growth that preys on natural resources. Large dam building is one such formula to harness and channel water into such cycles, contributing directly to inequity and compounding ecological damage, especially where sizeable forests are submerged. Our “colonial cousins’” experiences of disastrous externalities in the Three Gorges, Aswan and Tarbela only seem to have fuelled our seemingly insatiable appetite for large dams and the harnessing of water.

In Polavaram, projected benefits from the project have led to unabashed self regard and hardening of pro-dam interests amidst dubious claims of ‘benefits’. Dubious because claimed ‘command areas’ are not only exaggerated, but likely to be further reduced with soil salinity, water logging, erratic and reduced inflows for power generation.

An evidently racist exclusion threatens the survival of indigenous groups and acquires their land in the interests of Foucauldian ‘governmentality’. Local experiences of ‘reasonable’ recompense in Andhra Pradesh, too (as in other parts of India) have been worth little. While courts in other parts of the world (Australia, North America, racist in their own right) have even recently awarded sizeable compensation to indigenous communities, the Indian state/s in the quest to remain competitive, tend to pat down any ‘just’ reparation to a ridiculous minimum.

It is rarely recognized that displacement from sacred, nurturing lands and forests virtually destroys humans at critical junctures of cultural frailty (a frailty precipitated to breaking point). The consequent ‘alienation from long accepted life-worlds’ by those destined to ‘suffer in the national interest’ is registered as necessary by the population at large. Though repression is unquestionably the hard underbelly of neoliberalism, alienation, social disorganization, mental illness, dramatically reduced life-expectancy and food insecurity are among the real dangers from culture loss and severed access to common property resources. Only, these casualties appear unremarkable as statistics go unreported by a media overly focused on the ‘mainstream’, the sensational. The media does not convey (in any meaningful sense) or study alienation as a historical and structural problem since this is not amenable to quick QED surveys in psychological or other social science. What cannot be measured cannot be said to exist, for many with a fetish for empiricist social science.

To quote Sen & Dreze, “A more comprehensive approach is needed, which must also incorporate other ways of giving environmental problems the attention they deserve” (2002:227). We would be so much the poorer for not engaging with indigenous alternatives, modes of survival and social organization. This view, many critics and ethno-historians point out, could succumb to romantic conceptions of the environment, and forest dwellers as its natural votaries.

But an optimism founded on ‘resilience’ immanent in the eco-system/biosphere, ‘belief in the robustness of nature’ are presuppositions of ancient vintage ingrained in the interest for more (accumulation, resources, production, consumption, spending and growth_ development).

Environmentalists confront charges of ‘romanticism’ (coming conspicuously from liberal quarters: intellectuals, corporate think-tanks, climate change deniers and media); these are made to stymie those opposed to such development. They are pressed to define ‘ecology’ more precisely, even as medical science (itself deeply mired in capitalist organization) is permitted the business of preserving life rather than sent digging into its semantics. Views supportive/ sympathetic of tribal communities could be similarly run down and dismissed.

Commodification feeds on subsistence that is free in nature; any ‘common property resources’ are cordoned and monopolized for profit. The ‘killing’ that bottled water companies make with water needs only purification process, packaging and marketing costs (perhaps more importantly, ‘taking care’ of politicians and bureaucrats); the larger corporations can easily ‘give back’ some profits to ‘corporate ethical responsibility’ funds, reaping additional publicity, ‘goodwill’. “Production for the sake of production – the obsession with the rate of growth, whether in the capitalist market or in planned economies – leads to monstrous absurdities” Guattari & Deleuze. To prize accumulation for it own sake, for development then, constricts its flow to limited conduits, furthering the ‘development of underdevelopment’; a large part of returns to FDI flowing to ‘core’ regions of the globe (while developing states and their corporations squabble over the remaining rubble).

Colonially founded bureaucracies like the Indian Forest Service however have recently begun to take an interest in ‘social forestry’ and the synergies to be realized from indigenous practices in ‘joint forest management’ (perhaps more out of compliance with bureaucratic directives than from nuancing meanings associated with living with nature). While such directives take note of global critique, practice usually lapses into corruption, quotidian vulgarization and short hand interpretation of rules/procedures by bureaucratic functionaries, all tending to defeat the ends of legislative enactment. We may never understand indigenous communitarian (living) cultures and their survival practices, post decimation. The least that policies could do is not accelerate/ precipitate any process of culture and forest loss, especially through development projects. While the Forest Rights Act, (FRA) 2006 seeks to accord recognition of land in use by forest dwelling communities (usufruct rights), the antiquated Land Acquisition Act, 1894, (in all its amendments) is invoked to supersede the former (the FRA apparently remains a paper claim of constitutional ‘provisions’ and enactments). The state thus tends to minimize/reduce any rights in forests, mountains and river basins/deltas, but welcomingly smiles with flowers between exposed teeth at FDIs. Dangerously large development projects can not only trample upon human rights, but equally importantly, on the environmental commons, too.

Protection of indigenous ways of life by the state is not only a necessary intervention which the Indian state has constitutionally committed itself to, but also because the alternative knowledges that indigenous ways of life represent are threatened when most needed by the unthinking and unsustainable accretion of ‘development’. Studies in indigenous micro-economies, sharing and pooling, altruistic reciprocity and gift giving, earth-nature practices, indigenous medical practices and communitarian orientations can inform latter day approaches to utilitarian development and individualist profit. Cutting ecological corners, especially for individual gain is anathema to most adivasis (an imperative as nature is the sole source of sustenance (and often elevated to divinity). But such corner cutting becomes a necessary formula for success under capitalism resulting in numerous unacceptable disasters impacting the environment adversely, restricting the range of productive potential.

Post colonial governments have asserted that Indian tribal societies/economies did not represent arrested levels of development and as such, should not be seen as frozen ‘museum exhibits’, seeking the tribes’ active participation in modernity. To postcoloniality, proletarianization (‘work liberates’) has appeared a better prospect than a disdainful foraging subsistence. It was as though admission of such fraternal intent itself constituted a ‘successful homogenization’ of tribals. Such benevolent intent was considered enough to incorporate adivasis into a fraternity of national development; they could be implored to part with lands over which they anyway held only ambiguous claim. (Only, post-Nehru, we send in trigger happy CRPF to mow down people and bust peaceful protest). While laws ostensibly decreed that this did not give non-tribals a right to acquire tribal lands, they did however, leave the state clear arrogatory rights and powers to do so.


In post-independence India, the policy of social development has been couched in an essential telos of meliorist betterment of the ‘historically disadvantaged’ (especially Dalits and Adivasis). The recognition that Dalits and adivasis formed a kind of datum of historical disprivilege has also set in motion a rising ‘tide of expectations’. This relied on the gratuitous naming of groups by the state for a place in the national social structure; but disconsonant practice has seen the diversion of (minuscule) quotas, budgets; imaginary expenditures work against any ‘protective discrimination’. The contending groups demands could not all be conceded by the state which did not remain the unalloyed moulder of social structure. Quickly abandoning this function to the market, it has given rise to articulation of a politics from which tribals had previously remained largely silent and insulated. This now ushers people into divisions of claim over resources, distribution and into a competitive alterity (as Lobo, Skaria, Corbridge, Breman and many ethnohistorians/ social scientists show). In this complexity, the dividends from nationalist political socialization, proselytization and deployment of combative alterity (nurturing their beings proletarian-lean and fighting sharp) are considered worthy of investment. Less understood is (human) adivasi agency, adapting cultural belief to proletarian relegation and life changing/shattering circumstances; beliefs conferring at least an iota of self-respect for the dispossessed.

It appears the Polavaram project of 1940s vintage (Srirampadasagar plans) should have been adequate notice for tribals to clear the area for a little understood ‘scientific’ development. They would do well to clear out, having seen the face of a superior alien god.
When the state intervenes to create/open up markets, when rights of the weak are eroded and overridden, perceptions of gain and state largesse are legitimated/tolerated by media, the publics and law, we are reminded of living in the midst of a neoliberalist dispensation.

For Harvey (2005), Neoliberalism is “a theory of political economic practices” rather than a “complete” political ideology; it is ‘a continuity of liberal doctrine’: “a theory of political economic practices…that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills” which are guaranteed by state enforcement of an “institutional framework of strong private property rights, free markets and free trade”. Capital and the requisite technologies instrumental in its further accumulation represent these entrepreneurial freedoms and skills, buttressed by a state defined legality. This ‘human freedom’ is elevated to a moral plane worthy of pursuit in and of itself, the state aiding not only market creation but overseeing the award of favours and distribution of concessions to groups proximate to it. This stresses any concerns of ‘transparency’, making corruption (especially in developing societies) a routine activity and an endemic occurrence.

Neoliberalism assumes a totalizing specialist-technicist objectivity that drives conceptions of ‘mutual’ development and individualist gain, even as its corollary, myopic self regard renders impervious the loss and pain of the Other.

Wittgenstein famously used the example of pain to show that ‘privileged access to one’s own mind’ cannot comprehend the experience of pain of the ‘other mind’, concluding that it only makes sense to accept the other’s claim of pain on his/her word. While routinising practices related to minimisation of pain (a Millian motivation, widely understood in the care-giving professions), the allegory of pain from abrupt severance of economic practices and cultural dislocation has produced infinite, undocumented adversity on indigenous people for no fault of theirs.

But before we jump the already smoking neoliberal gun, could we be more precise about liberalism and utilitarianism? For an understanding of liberalism, we may rely on Gray’s (1986/1998) abstraction of liberal thought, his identification of component ‘elements’: individualism (the ‘moral primacy of [the] person’), egalitarianism (conferring ‘the same moral…worth on all men’, universalism ( ‘affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms’ and finally, ‘meliorist in its affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements’.

From this vantage, it becomes possible to identify contradictions and jarring discontinuities in its assumption of modern neoliberal forms, essentializing the role of the state. The egalitarian element is transformed into ill concealed racism, in administering the state’s many populations. It is easily recognised that state meliorism is highly diluted with (apparently) autonomous market forces. The ‘element’ of universalism similarly runs into problems with instances of historical uniqueness and cultural specificity.

Ideas of a ‘self-regulating market‘ constitute the ‘core’ assumptions of both liberalism and neoliberalism (Munck, 2005; Harvey, 2005). In neoliberal practice, ideas of egalitarianism, meliorism are sanitised to virtual elimination, and contradictions of (an originally desirable) ‘minimal state intervention’ gain an overriding concern with state power, especially in creating and leveraging entry into markets. Neoliberalism for Harvey must “guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets” and their “creation” “by state action if necessary”. Gray finds that it was JS Mill who “created a system of thought which legitimated the interventionist and statist tendencies which grew even stronger throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century in England” (1986/1998:30). Moreover, “The falsity of Mill’s philosophy of history – in which modernization and Westernization are conflated and there is an unshakable expectation of cultural convergence on a universal liberal civilization – has profoundly subversive consequences for all forms of liberalism” (Gray: 2000:139)

And so, proletarianisation proceeds apace such that the subalterns are ‘inclusively’ still part of the ‘growth story’_ growth that integrates them in ‘colonies’! and slum housing, a couple of feet square. (At least they survive to make good when their education/ literacy and renumerable skill levels eventually (somehow) go up, and a ‘developed’ state benevolently disposed to accord their descendants some redress…). The needs of particular groups are lost sight of as universalizing/ hegemonic conceptions of the good blind us to the adivasi experience of alienation.

Elinor Ostrom, recently awarded the Nobel prize in economics showed that ‘common pool property is an effective way of managing natural resources’; this is a legacy of rich potential (albeit summarized to some vulgarization). Her observations are based on the principle of usufruct rather than ownership_ an economy where pooling is mandated by the state/society. Testimony that a tragedy of the commons can be averted, her work in institutional economics studies the design principles of successful institutions. Institutional diversity and assortment of governance structures are to be welcomed instead of standard concepts in institutional design (that lead to top-down policy determined by some “optimality”).

This is hardly the ‘road to serfdom’ that liberals, quickened to defend rights to a possessive individualism, have disdainfully rejected (Ostrom was a liberal). That ownership comes with social responsibility has been the less pronounced rider of neoliberal Indian capitalism, permitting endless hypocrisy and racist exclusion of its populations.

The irrigation bonanza accruing to the downstream command area (of a claimed 7.20 lakh Ha irrigated land) lies in the Godavari delta/basin of East and West Godavari, Krishna and Visakhapatnam districts; plans are afoot to irrigate regions in Prakasam and Rayalseema; water supply of about 23.5 TMC for a thirsting industrial Visakhapatnam and adjoining regions is being readied; generation of 960 MW hydro-electric Power are all claimed as necessary for ‘development’ and urbanization in this region.

The Bharat Nirman Program (National Water Development Board) of the Ministry of Water Resources has piloted an ambitious National Rivers Linking Project (NRLP) which would divert the surplus waters of rivers into deficient ones (in this case, 80 TMC of Godavari water would flow into the Krishna). Unsurprisingly, the central Ministry too has an interest in proceeding with the Polavaram project since it would inaugurate the first rivers’ link. But amidst projected scenarios of water conflicts, rivers inter-linking would only generate more sobering uneven development from water surplus ‘cores’ and deficient hinterlands, effectively relegating unirrigated areas to wastelands (how do you like going the Indus Valley way, eh?). The ministry acknowledges that “water withdrawals for domestic and industrial sectors will increase much faster than that for irrigation”.

From conceptions of waters flowing ‘waste’, and ‘benefits’ from inter-linking, these Grandiose geo-hydrological engineering schemes (30 of these links spanning a total length of 12,500 km) are planned to be executed across the country! There have been directives from the Supreme Court to execute the NRLP_ that the SC should have given such a directive only underscores the need for serious/healthy public participation and political debate. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) seems to have only served to ultimately ratify and clear ‘development’ projects (appearing to weigh and delay them with a range of ‘conditionalities’), allocations to environment budgets simply slipping through their fingers. While we have a good idea where the water flows ‘waste’, less is known of the flow of public funds.

Rapid urbanization is to be expected in stretches with significantly high agricultural yields, especially along transport corridors and canal links (Nath 1986). Consequent upon urbanization is the decrease in size of agricultural land-holding, consolidation of land by rich farmers, agribusiness and real estate, while irrigation needs are expected to become secondary, according to the Centre for Policy Research. According to this view, capital from agricultural accumulation would be reinvested in other commercial development along transport corridors and canal links. Navigation and recreational facilities, development of (a declining) fisheries (to benefit capitalist contractors), tourism (Centre for Policy Research paper, op cit.) – and other anticipated spinoffs – would further add to urbanization, canal and river pollution. Surface evaporation losses do not appear to matter; seepage serves to recharge groundwater in adjacent areas_ how desirable this ‘ingenious’ human intervention worth thousands of crores, when investment in water harvesting might have achieved the same?

The legitimacy of development concerns must be evaluated in terms of alternatives and cost, both defined to include social justice and ecology. Calculation of costs too, has been characteristically hurried to obtain legal and Central clearances in this case (as with others). (And at time of writing, it seems the National Investments Bureau and the PMO can award clearances unilaterally)! The area under inundation would realistically be much, much higher than claimed by the AP Government. Can there be sanguine consensus on a policy that encourages water intensive patterns of agrarian wealth extraction, forest shrinkage and wasteland increase?

“Additional land acquisition for embankments, soil of usable quality for embankment construction, land for collecting several lakh cubic metres of muck and its disposal” haven’t been provided for. The project also threatens loss to livelihoods of river fishing communities as the river would stop flowing (at natural flows), blocking the migration of spawning fish; the livelihoods of Mala communities dependent on driftwood/fuelwood salvage would be severely affected (Uma Maheshwari, R: 2012). Much biodiversity depends on riverine and estuarine habitats. They attract migratory birds because they are so prolifically productive as in the nearby Kolleru lake (now shrinking from human settlement); Papikonda is a wildlife sanctuary only by pronouncement and demarcation, there are similar contiguous forests that would be submerged. The Godavari’s environmental vulnerability stems mainly from alteration of flow (dams). Rundowns prognosticating shrinkage of biodiversity are chillingly real, and the state will now host an international biodiversity conference amid heavy security (from marauding Maoist microbes?). Studies cite numerous endangered plant and animal species adversely affected through habitat inundation in the submergence zone (EPW, EPTRI).

There seems to be little consolation that the Chhattisgarh and Odisha governments have filed petitions with the Supreme Court against the Polavaram project, up for hearing by a special forest bench (ToI, Jul 29, 2012), since the latter has also attempted to award illegal mining rights to corporations, flattening whole forested mountains, creating toxic slurry ponds in the wilderness (Niyamgiri) and training guns on protesting locals/tribals (Kalinganagar, Kottaguda)! But it seems Constitutional restraints, Supreme Court interventions and permissions of the different ministries have only left a record of facilitating capitalist development and ‘the national interest’, rather than interpret it to include the rights of evictees and environmental concerns. (The National Commission for SCs and STs are another agency to clear this project).

In Odisha, 13 settlements in eight revenue villages and five hamlets in Podia block of Malkangiri district would be submerged; this does not include the 2,120 hectares in Chhattisgarh. The A.P government’s proposed idea of an embankment that would protect these states is merely an afterthought_ how this would be executed and paid for has not been planned, simply euphemistically announced. Thus, adivasis and other groups are confronted with their very survival by a state in the throes of a vicious neo-liberal capitalism concerned with anticipated development and speculation rather than human welfare. Greed not need (kind of a nice meme, if reversed…) drives the stridency of ‘grow or die’ economics. More realistically, agricultural productivity and surplus generation through trade and industry would be curtailed by drastic environmental degradation (P. Balakrishnan, 2012).

Ironically, areas scheduled for submergence fall largely in the semi-arid Telangana region, uprooting a sizeable percentage of marginalised groups. On the other hand, the command area represents a relatively developed coastal region irrigated by the Dhowleswaram barrage (Rammohan, EPW; this is now said to require de-siltation); the fertile Godavari delta and adjoining areas receive a higher-than-state average rainfall. The fortuitous record of rainfall is sought to be supplemented by the security of surface water irrigation, as the state continues to hedge its bets on ‘the strong’, the rich farmers and capitalists for more inauspicious accumulation!

Among the technical alternatives suggested by irrigation Engineers like M Dharma Rao, T Hanumantha Rao and Sriramkrishniah have been those involving multiple and lower barrages, tunneling of waters from the Sabari and Sileru rivers_ these have not seriously been examined (the AP CM, a good man personally, doesn’t want/need to look at them, only to go ahead with the Polavaram spending?). Flood levels over a 100 year period have not been taken into account; possible dam-break scenarios have not been allowed for (Prof T Sivaji Rao); endangered are some 42 lakh persons downstream. T Hanumatha Rao’s designs also preclude the necessity for desiltation, as silt could be auctioned to agriculturists when barrages dry out in summers.

Recently, the state came in for severe criticism and ‘scolding’ (by the Ministry of Environment and Forests) of irregular ‘spillway’ design and the expensive placatory measures of ‘embankments’ for Chhattisgarh and Odisha inundation. (Will the scolding even turn into real spanking, and keep the state government in the dock?).

Even the technical alternatives minimizing submergence and displacement, claiming half the irrigation costs/per hectare in the command area, secondary benefits and enhanced safety are all paradoxically not worth considering by the state of A.P, which claims to know all there is to know about arcane development projects. But these alternatives still go with utilitarian, neoliberalist flows of ‘harnessing benefits’, but only making like minimizing damage/ displacement. Is it necessary to make a cake that some Indians will eat and others cannot have (but yet pay dearly for)?? The Polavaram-Indirasagar Project is clearly a call for alternatives and experiments with a credible ‘altruism’ that invests in this part of the planet. This must proceed through fundamental review of development policy, democratic critique and debate, and certainly not through arrogant, steamrolling assertions claiming to ‘know what’s best’.


Balakrishna Pulapre, Finding the will to govern the economy, The Hindu, 25 August 2012

Bharath Bhushan M and Murali R, Myth and Reality of Polavaram Project, (mimeograph) Aranyika, Hyderabad, 1994

Biksham Gujja , S Ramakrishna , Vinod Goud et al (Eds; 2007): Perspectives on Polavaram: A Major Irrigation Project on Godavari, Academic Foundation, New Delhi (with WWF-India and SAKTI)

Centre for Policy Research (http://www.scribd.com/doc/59101116/The-Future-of-Urbanization)

Diana K Davis (2006): Neoliberalism, environmentalism, and agricultural restructuring in Morocco, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 172, No. 2, June 2006, pp. 88-105

David Harvey (2005): A Brief History of Neoliberalism, London, Oxford University Press

Fernandes, Walter (2008): Paying the Price of Someone Else’s Development, Agenda-Infochange. No. 12, pp. 8-12.
__ (2012): The Indian Indigenous Peoples for Sixty Years
Part I: Tribals and National Development
Part II: Development and Tribal Identity

__ (2002): Land, Water and Air as community Livelihood: Impact of Globalisation

__ (2002): Development Deprived, the environment and the livelihood of the poor in the Northeast

__ (2007): Singur and the Development Scenario, EPW Commentary, 20 Jan, ‘07

Kamal K Misra and DJ Narendra Bondla (2007): Resettlement and Rehabilitation in India, Hyderabad, Centre for World Solidarity

http://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/299/examining-environmental-flows-critical- for-river-ecosystems-in-india Search EPW for nearly 2 dozen articles on Polavaram

Stephen Kemmis (2006): Action Research in the footsteps of Jurgen Habermas, in Handbook of Action Research, Peter Reason and H. Bradbury, Sage Publications, London, California, New Delhi (@ google books.com)

Thomas Lemke (nd epaper): Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique @: http://www.andosciasociology.net/resources/Foucault$2C+Governmentality$2C+and+Critique+IV-2.pdf

Lokayan Bulletin 11:5, 1995 (pp 82 -86) APPEAL: To Withdraw Polavaram Dam

V Nath (1986). Urbanisation in India Review and Prospects, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol – XXI No. 8, February 22, 1986

RV Ram Mohan Dams and Displacement: Major Loss, Minor Gain, Polavaram Project in AP

Richard Mohaptra, Why Polavaram is Pointless Project, Down to Earth, 15 May 2011

V. Rukmini Rao and Tony Stewart (2006): ‘India’s Dam Shame: why Polavarm Dam must not be built’, Secunderabad, Gramya Resource Centre for Women @:

EAS Sarma Adivasi (2006). The State and the Naxalite: Case of Andhra Pradesh Economic and Political Weekly, Vol-XLI No 15, April 15,2006

N Subba Reddy (2006). Development through Dismemberment of the Weak: Threat of Polavaram Project, Economic and Political Weekly,

Palla Trinadha Rao (2006). Nature of Opposition to the Polavaram Project Economic and Political Weekly, Vol-XLI No 15, April 15,2006

Uma Maheshwari, R: 2012 Rivers of Andhra Pradesh Lecture at IIC, New Delhi on March 23, 2012 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoUH3iyRwh0


1. aj - అక్టోబర్ 13, 2012

believe that shd be Eric Stokes


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