As the World Summit on Social Development (WSSD) gets underway in South Africa, India, a country of over a billion people, can report little but the gross failure of its best-known environment movements.
These range from the movements campaigning against large dams, to those warning of the dangers of allowing cultivation of genetically modified products, to the 18-year-old struggle by activists to seek justice, rehabilitation and care in the wake of the Bhopal disaster, the world’s biggest industrial tragedy.
Most spectacularly, the 17-year-old-Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) or Save the Narmada Movement has failed to prevent the large-scale displacement of thousands of tribals and peasants by the construction of large dams across the Narmada river in western India.
Thus far, activists of the NBA and the people affected by these projects have refused to be cowed by police beatings and large-scale arrests.
But they are now in serious danger of drowning as submergence levels grow in direct proportion to the heightening of the massive Sardar Sarovar dam, one of 30 big and 300 smaller dams planned to be built across the country’s only westward flowing river.
“Heavy monsoon rains in the catchment area and upstream of the Sardar Sarovar project has caused the water levels to rise at an alarming rate and add to the already enormous devastation to houses and crops of tribal families in the Narmada Valley,” said Medha Patkar, the leader of the NBA who has previously won the Ramon Magsaysay award, Asia’s version of the Nobel prize.
Last week, Patkar reported that buildings submerged by the rains included the ancient temple at Hapheshwar and the NBA’s own office, which has served as the centre for a Gandhian style, non-violent resistance movement.
The local administration is in no mood for Gandhian ‘satyagraha’ (righteous desire) movements. Accompanied by a 200-strong police posse, it forcibly removed 20 NBA activists who were standing in neck-deep water and had them sentenced to 15 days in custody.
After the World Bank withdrew from the project in 1993 because of doubts over its social, environmental and economic costs, the Indian government went ahead on its own in the teeth of opposition by several groups led by the NBA.
The NBA had at one point even managed to obtain a Supreme Court stay on construction for six years.
But the court lifted the stay in October 2000 and the NBA suffered a further setback by failing to ensure adequate compensation for the victims or limit heightening of the dam beyond the present 95 metres.
This is despite the fact that experts have warned that the stated objectives — irrigation, electricity generation and provision of drinking water — cannot be achieved even if the dam’s spillway dam reaches 110 metres in height.
The NBA’s plea that the sluice gates of the dam be opened to prevent “unjust submergence” until the thousands of families are first relocated has fallen on deaf ears. Observers say this year could well see a few drownings.
Also expected this season are suicides by cotton farmers, whose crops failed miserably after they invested heavily in genetically engineered cotton seeds purveyed by the U.S.-based Monsanto Corp through its Indian subsidiary MAHYCO.
They had gone into these investments, despite massive campaigns against the trials of genetically modified (GM) crops by globally known campaigners such as Vandana Shiva and Michelle Chawla of the global watchdog Greenpeace.
Farmers in India’s ‘cotton capital’ of Khargone in central Madhya Pradesh state are on the warpath, demanding compensation from Monsanto/MAHYCO for what they say is a hundred percent crop failure in the region.
Although company officials have been hinting at this year’s delayed monsoon and drought in central and western India as the reason for the crop failures, the fact remains that farmers who have not opted to use Monsanto’s Bt cotton have reported only limited crop damage, critics say.
Clearance for Monsanto-MAHYCO’s Bt-Cotton was granted by the government this year. But for years now, the seeds have been available in the market with authorities feigning ignorance or looking the other way until the representatives of the U.S. seed giant protested the ‘clandestine’ sales.
For more than three years, farmers’ groups in southern Karnataka state, led by Prof. Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association, have repeatedly uprooted and burned Bt cotton trial crops but were dismissed as madcaps.
Last month, Karnataka finally banned Bt-cotton.
Monsanto-MAHYCO took advantage of crop failures from bollworm pests in recent years, which drove hundreds of indebted farmers to suicide, to push Bt cotton seeds. These seeds are genetically spliced with toxin producing genes taken from a bacterium.
But crop failures have been even more spectacular this year. On top of it, there are reports from government agencies that cloth produced from genetically engineered cotton has produced itching and allergy in those who have used garments made from it.
If government indifference and even connivance with transnational corporations to the detriment of ordinary citizens in discernible in the unfolding Bt cotton tragedy, critics say it is blatant where bringing to book Union Carbide, responsible for the tragedy in Bhopal in 1984, is concerned.
A ‘satyagraha’ campaign, including protest fasting, launched against Union Carbide’s new owner, Dow Chemical in India, more than a month ago is now being carried to Johannesburg, the venue of the WSSD.
“The rigorous security arrangements at the WSSD Convention Centre will not deter the Bhopal ‘satyagrahis’ from making their non-violent protest against Dow Chemical,” activists have declared in a statement.
Taking a page from Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa, anti-Dow protestors from Bhopal and elsewhere will fast for justice in Bhopal wearing red arm-bands and taking their protest into the ‘belly of the beast’ during the summit.
“If there is one protest the police can do nothing about, it is our hunger strike, and we will take our protest against the racism and hypocrisy of Dow and other multinational corporations right into the summit venue,” said Rasheeda Bi, who sat on a 19-day fast in Delhi along with fellow victim Tara Bai and activist Satinath Sarangi in July.
Over 20, 000 people have died so far as a consequence of the disaster in Bhopal 18 years ago, after a runaway chemical reaction at Union Carbide’s pesticides plant caused by cost-cutting measures and sheer negligence. More than 2,000 people died instantly on the night of Dec. 13, 1984.
Those who died were luckier than the 150,000 people still suffering from exposure-induced diseases and conditions.