People’s properties: Communities resist ‘ugly’ development

By Bikash Sangraula, IPS

KARACHI – Whether it is against the megadam to be built over the Narmada River in India or the Kalabagh dam between Sindh and Punjab provinces in Pakistan, communities that share a legacy of oppression, social exclusion and economic deprivation vow to resist this aggressive brand of development.

This development comes at the expense of fisher communities and often also entails eviction of tens of thousands of people living in settlements on the banks of the rivers and their tributaries. And the beneficiaries? Who else but the rich?

In the end, copious water runs from their taps and their houses are lit with electricity. Most of them are never aware of the human costs of the facilities that come their way.

According to a country survey on India by World Commission on Dams India, at least 75 percent of some 40 million people displaced for large dams in India over the past five decades have never been resettled.

“With globalisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and western powers are forcing developing countries to go for big projects and hand over public utilities to the private sector,” said Subhashini Ali, leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist).

While the widening of economic inequities between the rich and poor countries is already there, the drive to privatise services that traditionally were the mandate of governments, Omain said these increases economic inequities within developing countries, she argued at the plenary on People’s Resistance Movements at Sports Complex Stadium Monday.

The drive to privatise is underway in South Asia at a time when the whole region is going through a period of grave democratic crises. It is easy these days in countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and even in India to silence voices raised against megadevelopment projects initiated at the cost of the poor.

With the region in turmoil, governments are all the more vulnerable and therefore all too willing to win the confidence of the rich and the powerful, both within and without, by going for infrastructure that have adverse effects on small populations that cannot speak up for themselves.

“Bureaucracy sleeps over this problem,” says Waqar Awan, leader of All Pakistan Katchi Abadi Alliance. “Those evicted from their settlements spend a few years running after false promises. In the end, they have no land to stand on.”

Representatives from pro-poor groups in the region see the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the IMF as the culprits behind the poverty and unemployment in the region. They see a need for a concerted fight from the minorities to resist this global machine – that for the sake of economic efficiency — is turning everything, including schools, hospitals, water, electricity and forests, into a commodity for those who can pay.

Thus, the fisherfolk in Sindh fight the Pakistani government that sells fishing territories to big businessmen, a multinational company that buys them, packs them and distributes them, and the consumers who purchase the fish and fish products in posh bazaars.

“With big companies buying fishing territories, there is nothing left for the small fishermen,” says Adam Gandro, Chairman Keenjhar Fishermen Welfare Society.

The onslaught of globalisation also threatens to weaken the voices of minorities fighting for their language and culture, and Dalits fighting for their rights to equality as human beings. The Pakistani government is interested in the Kalabagh dam, and not at all in recognising Siraiki as the fifth nation in Pakistan.

“We are moving ahead in the wrong direction,” says Ashok Bharati, convenor of World Dignity Forum. “Natural resources and public utilities belong to the people. It is their property.”

A lot that happens in cabinet meetings and in government offices never comes under the scanner. However, in India pro-poor activists have had small victories in their fight for transparency. Thanks to lobbying from civil society, legislation has been formulated in India allowing every citizen to access any kind of public interest information from government offices. Officials face a fine if they do not disclose information.

“We lobbied for this after realising that it is important for the people to know what the government does in the name of the poor, and where the money that comes for the poor goes,” says Preeti Sampat, an activist from Rajasthan, India who works on the poor’s right to information.

Knowing more about the way our governments work might be one way to stop them from making decisions that serve a few at the expense of the majority.