“Uneven Development: A term used within later Marxist theory to denote the process by which capitalism transforms the world as a whole but does so in different ways, developing the productive and social forces in some areas, but (as part of the same process) restricting or distorting growth in others. It may be contrasted with the earlier Marxist belief in capitalism as producing a uniform world in its own image.” - A Dictionary of Sociology | 1998 | GORDON MARSHALL
Images of Development:
It is the mid 90’s and the waves of globalization have begun to touch the shores of the Hoogly in Calcutta. Charming but backward and stagnant, the City of Joy seems to be getting a facelift with swanky discotheques, posh streets, new residential complexes and the inevitable mall culture epitomized in glass and concrete replacing the graceful Victorian structures that once defined Calcutta. Global trends, public demand and 21st century politics has shaken even the long standing left front government out of its stupor to try and make Calcutta a more appealing destination by investing in infrastructure and facilities. The mood is upbeat and it should be right? But director Pramod Gupta swivels the lens from the glossy symbol of development that is Park Street to a dirty old canal in Beleghata where the other half of this development drive is played out.
Broken shanties, malnutritioned children, piles of garbage and wearied workers go about their daily task of survival. This little stretch of stinking canal, a picture postcard for poverty, diseases and desperation is the source of food, land and shelter to its several thousand inhabitants. It is their means of livelihood, a place where they were born, raised and will die in squalor. But even this is too much to let be for the visionaries of India shining, for India must shine, even if that means wiping off the grime and dust with big yellow bulldozers and an army of policemen. With the rise of multi story buildings comes the fall of insignificant slums and as South Calcutta develops, Beleghata must disappear to make way for the march of development that steps over anything that will come in its way.
The film highlights this inequality of development in India where people from the lower strata of society are forcibly evicted from their homes and lands to make way for government policies. These government policies benefit only the elite few because which slum dweller can afford to live in a residential society with a gym and swimming pool and shopping complex or get medication at a 5 star hospital or send their kids to the new international residential school?
Development for who? Is the question we must ask ourselves and the government. Will the people who owned the land be allowed to partake of the fruits of the development drive that steals their land? Sure the government promises rehabilitation and compensation but history of evictions have a different story to tell. A total of 5 million people have been displaced in the name of development since Independence. This is almost 3 times the number of the refugees that emerged during the partition of India. Where has that population disappeared? Rehabilitated to where? Compensated how? The slum dwellers in Beleghata were offered, not given, merely promised Rs 2000 as compensation by the Left Front government. 2000 rupees is the value of the life a family has built over decades since their forefather lived in Beleghata. That in itself is a conservative estimate because compensation packages across India come with a lot of fine print. One must have 50 year proof of living, identity cards, ration cards, passport size photographs, so on and so forth. How is a daily wage labourer who earns Rs 20 a day, barely feeding his family, to have a passport size photograph costing Rs 100 for 36 prints at Kodak Fotofast? But the inhabitants of Beleghata ask an even more fundamental question. They have ration cards and have lived there for 50 years, are they even then not citizens of India?
The complexity of this simple question is incredible. Who is a citizen of India? Does a ration card bestow unto us the right to call ourselves Indian? If so, then this a violation of their human rights. And if not, does it mean one day we may be evicted of our comfortable city apartments into the wild for people richer than us? Is the amount of personal wealth accumulated and not productivity generated, the marker for worthier citizenship in this country?
The plight of the people of Beleghata in the film is but an example of the wider inequalities of development occurring across not just in India but the world. The tribes of the Amazon must yield to make expensive shampoo from rare plants for models in the first world. Factory workers work longer hours for lesser money to craft shoes they can never buy for people who earn roughly 30,000 times more money in a month than the amount they do in a year, which is Rs 3000. But the focus of this review is India and coming back to it reminds me of the various images of development in India.
From the POSCO steel plant in Orissa to the Jaitapur Nuclear power plant in Ratnagiri to the 50,000 MW Hydroelectric Initiative in Arunachal Pradesh and the much talked about Narmada Dam in Gujarat, the number of people, tribes and communities displaced and destroyed in the name of development is astounding.
In a remote village in Eastern Maharashtra which speaks a lost language and is stuck in an era closer to the Stone Age than the 21st century, the only common word between us and an old man with stick thin legs deformed by malnutrition and rickets was ‘passport’. He was convinced that if we got him a passport photograph the government of India would listen to him. In the slums behind posh Cuffe Parade in Mumbai women wait in line for hours and children skip school in the morning for that one hour of water supply dribbling out of 2 taps that must meet the needs of 20,000 slum dwellers. While real estate in Juhu scheme advertise apartments with private swimming pools , Vidarbha faces yet another year of drought.
As P. Sainath once said –‘The fastest growing sector in India today is not IT or software, textiles or automobiles. It is inequality. That has grown faster than at any other time since Independence.’ What has grown with it is the mind-set that inequality breeds, one that dehumanises the poor. That sees their plight as solely of their own making. It is a telling statement that even as one watched the film, Images of Development, all that one felt was emotional numbness and it is this numbness after repeated assaults on our human rights that the government bureaucracy hope to cash on
While we have the luxury of feeling numb the victims of inequality out of sheer lack of options turn to what they see as an alternative to state sponsored brutality. It is a frightening brutality of their own, in the form of terror groups in J&K, insurgent groups in the North East and Naxal groups in roughly 30% of India. This today is the Madness of Modern Civilization.
With increasing frequency, social inequality is translating into ecological inequality especially in third world countries today. Environmental problems are linked to unequal access to resources thereby creating another dimension to the poverty Question. Initially the marginalized sections of society at least made ends meet by living off the land but now due to depleting resources and government policies, river water and forest land have become disputed resources. The modern Indian state has in this case created ecological refugees in the name of development. 6 out of every 10 of the world’s poorest people are being pushed by agricultural modernization and increasing population into ecologically fragile environments or the slums of the great urban areas. The slums themselves are constantly erased and rebuilt by the nexus between the land mafia and politicians playing god with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Unless development strategies support the capabilities of these people to ensure their own survival, the nearly 500 million poorest people of the world in these fragile areas will be forced to meet their short term needs at the cost of peace, long term ecological sustainability and the well being of future generations.