Social Action and NGOization in Contexts of Development Dispossession in Rural India: Explorations into the Un-civility of Civil Society


Social Action and NGOization in Contexts of Development Dispossession in Rural India: Explorations into the Un-civility of Civil Society

Dip Kapoor

People’s movements of the traditional communities (parompariko goshthi) fighting for the protection of their natural resource base need to be more cautious about the role NGOs play. We all know that the government is pushing for not only mineral-based industries but also for creating SEZs (Special Economic Zones) for thermal and hydro-electric power and primarily in Dalit-Adivasi-fisher people’s areas. With this in mind, the business and state/political interests have already put up their own NGO fronts to work on this directive to fool the people through charity and free services until displacement goals are met and they disappear. (KJ, Kalinganagar movement activist, Focus group notes, April 2009)

We all know that our problems today are because of colonialism (samrajyobad) and capitalism (punjibad) and these MNCs (multinational corporations), NGOs, DFID (Department for International Development, UK) and the government are its forces (L, Niyamgiri Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement activist, Interview notes, February 2011).


World Systems theorists have long recognized that the history of capitalism begins with the transformation of land rights, a complex process of commodification attached to the establishment of bourgeois property rights in land and its usage (Wallerstein, 2012). Included among the features of this process is ‘the increasing privatization of the earth’s surface through dispossession and displacement of peasants and indigenous populations’ and the ‘destruction of non-market access to food and self-sustenance and creation of a mobile global proletariat that is massively concentrated in the urban centres of the world economy’ (often living under a regime of forced under-consumption). ‘A current global land grab unprecedented since colonial times is underway as speculative investors … are acquiring millions of hectares of land in the global South’ (Araghi, 2010; Araghi & Karides, 2012, pp.1–3). Often involving the eviction of local producers and forced expropriations even under the rubric of confronting the global food and energy crisis (GRAIN, 2012; McMichael, 2012), between 2001 and 2011 some 227 million hectares of land (an area the size of Western Europe) had been sold or leased to international investors (Oxfam, 2011).

The introduction of neoliberalism and the New Economic Policy of 1991 has heralded a similar process of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003) in India whereby land enclosures (for agro-industry, mining or industrial development) that dispossess Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes), Dalits (Scheduled Castes), and peasants help to turn land into property and capital (Levien, 2012; Walker, 2008) for transnational and domestic capitalists and feudal/landed elites (Padel & Das, 2010; Patnaik & Moyo, 2011). This process has been gathering momentum recently in the state of Orissa (the context of this chapter) and the mineral rich central-eastern region of India (Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal). Under the 2006 National Mining Policy, the corporatized-state has leased one billion tons of bauxite (of an estimated 1.6 billion) to transnational and Indian corporations through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) (IPTEHR, 2006). Subsequently, while Adivasis constitute eight percent of the Indian population (or 80 million or more people belonging to some 612 Scheduled tribes), they account for forty percent of development-displaced persons (DDPs). In the state of Orissa where Adivasis make up twenty-two percent of the population, they account for forty-two percent of DDPs (Fernandes, 2006). According to some estimates, dams, mining, industries, and parks displaced 21.3 million people between 1951 and 1990 (prior to the neoliberal turn in the Indian economy and the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that have accelerated this process) of which 40 percent were Adivasi and 20 percent were Dalits (Nag, 2001). The government of India acknowledged a figure of 15.5 million displaced persons when it finally drafted a national rehabilitation policy in 1994, of which 75 percent are/or were still awaiting ‘rehabilitation’ (Bharati, 1999, p. 20).

These processes of displacement and dispossession or what some observers reference as ‘development violence’ (Kothari & Harcourt, 2004; Rajagopal, 2003) have been met with a proliferation of social movements/activism in the rural regions (Alvarez & Billorey, 1987; Baviskar, 1995; Ghai & Vivian, 1992; Ghosh, 2006; McMichael, 2010; Menon & Nigam, 2007; Oliver-Smith, 2010; Padel & Das, 2010; Rajagopal, 2003). For instance, a USD 12 billion project by POSCO Ltd. of South Korea (of which Citibank is a major shareholder) in Orissa is currently being held up by betel farmers and the POSCO Pratirodh Manch. Similar movements against mining/industrial displacement and dispossession (involving several transnational or Indian corporations including Tata, Vedanta/Sterlite (UK), Jindals, POSCO, Norsk Hydro (Norway), Alcan (Canada), Ambanis/Reliance etc., and various state agencies) in the rural regions of the state include relatively better-publicized movements in Lanjigarh, Kalinganagar, Kashipur, Earasama/Dhinkia and Keonjhar (Padel & Das, 2010), and several others (see Table 2.1 at the end of this chapter).

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as ‘agents of development’ are active in and around zones of mining and industrial development displacement and dispossession, some of whom claim to be supportive of, if not actively representing these movements in national and inter­­national forums, while others maintain a peripheral presence addressing social service needs of DDPs. Given that there are some 8000 NGOs operating in the state of Orissa alone (Padel & Das, 2010), they are clearly significant actors in the region and have yet to be seriously scrutinized in terms of their various engagements or disengagements with anti-mining and anti-industrial displacement social action/movements (see Table 2.1) in the state or in other parts of the country for that matter (Baviskar, 1995; Kamat, 2002; Menon & Nigam, 2007; Oliver-Smith, 2010). Based on a funded participatory action research project (2006-2010) (Kapoor, 2009), this chapter elaborates on an emergent thematic analysis of data generated from several focus group sessions and interviews with Lok Adhikar Manch (LAM) (Table 2.1) movement activists belonging to 15 anti-mining and anti-industrial development displacement and dispossession movements in the state pertaining to NGO-movement relations and the meaning and forms of NGOization (Alvarez, Dagnino & Escobar, 1998; Kamat, 2002) in this relationship.

Movement activists referred to small and large, national and international and Corporate/Government Organized NGOs (CONGOs/GONGOs) and voluntary/private NGOs at various points, sometimes making it difficult to avoid generalizations (i.e. activists referred to all of them at once as ‘NGOs’. For example, Vedanta/Sterlite’s social foundation and service wing was referenced as an NGO along with Action Aid UK) around emergent critical insights. The analysis that is entertained in this chapter needs to be understood as the perspective(s) of anti-mining and anti-industrial development displacement movements with distinctly anti-colonial and anti-capitalist politics. Not all movements would necessarily assess NGO engagements in like manner. While such movement-situated critiques resonate and occasionally intersect with theoretical critiques proposed by versions of Marxist and structuralist analyses (DeMars, 2005; Fernando, 2011; Kamat, 2002, 2004; Petras, 1997; Petras & Veltmeyer, 2001; Shivji, 2007) and Third Worldist anti-colonial vivisections (Barua, 2009; Goonatilake, 2006; Manji & O’Coill, 2002; Nandy, 1998; Quijano, 2000; Rajagopal, 2003), the propositions and analysis here originate from a movement activist experiential milieu (Bevington & Dixon, 2005) in a rural context scarred by a violent and unforgiving politics for subordinate classes, castes and ethnicities.

The anatomy of NGOization and the un-civility of civil society in rural contexts of development dispossession

Movement activist analysis of the politics of NGO-movement relations provides ample justification for what is advanced as a conscious, deliberate and systematic attempt by certain NGOs to undermine movements and their anti-displacement and anti-colonial politics – a process that was discussed in terms of political obscurantism and active attempts by NGOs to demobilize and immobilize movements opposed to the project, i.e., NGOs are predominantly viewed and assessed as contributory agents of state-corporate capital penetration and as being complicit in processes of rural displacement and dispossession as junior partners.

Political obscurantism: Red herrings, shape-shifters and the mystification of popular anti-mining/anti-industrial movement politics Through their presence in movement constituencies, NGOs provide the corporatized-developmental-state with a red-herring propaganda option as the state blames self-seeking NGOs (read as ‘foreign interests’) for instigating a false protest or conflict, i.e., one that is not in keeping with the real understanding of Adivasi and Dalit rural constituencies with respect to mining and development displacement. This enables the state-corporate nexus to divert attention away from, and to contribute towards, misrecognition and obscuring of popular movement politics unequivocally aimed against mining, industrial, and agro-forestry capitalist development dispossession (‘we will not move for the mine’ positions) by proposing that there is no real movement. Rather, they argue, there is only minor NGO-instigated misguided disaffection (political drama) masquerading as popular protest and resistance. According to a Kalinganagar movement activist, for instance, overt protests by Adivasi-Dalit-OBC (Other Backward Castes) movement constituencies against corporate industrial development in Kalinganagar by Tata and Jindal ‘are explained away by certain politicians as the mischief of instigating NGOs, in order to make it seem that people are really not against such development and are willing to accept displacement for progress’ (PM, Kalinganagar movement activist – Bisthapan Virodhi Manch, Interview notes, April, 2010). Or as in the case of the NBA in Niyamgiri,

NGO presence in Niyamgiri/Lanjigarh allows the government [the 2005 report of the Central Empowerment Committee of the Union government’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is cited in relation to same] to point to the good work of Vedanta/Sterlite-supported NGOs and portray Adivasi as being in favor of mining development and that Vedanta is really ‘Mining happiness for the people of Orissa’ [corporate slogan] and to dismiss our protest as the work of anti-national [instigating] NGOs. And with all this good and bad NGO talk, NBA’s real demands and anti-mining position is ignored and the public is misled about our views on this matter (SM, NBA movement activist, Interview notes, February 2011).

This state propaganda is utilized to bolster pro-mining/industrial development politics and public misperceptions around the same in urban middle class constituencies predictably sympathetic to urbanization and industrialization but also increasingly cognizant of India’s political image abroad in relation to human rights and ecological considerations (such as the ‘India Shining’ goverment campaign to promote India internatiionally). These class constituencies are sub­sequently keen to sanitize social and ecological exploitation implicating mining and other industrial development activity in rural contexts through such convenient explanations for the apparent political unrest.

The above scenario could perhaps still absolve NGOs of any direct complicity in an obscurantist displacement politics, i.e., this is state politics and has nothing to do with the real work of NGOs (just being used as red herrings by the state). But it is the real work of NGOs that is also called into question in relation to undermining and obscuring movement political aspirations in these contexts through shape-shifting or drastic changes in political positioning of NGOs with respect to these movements. For instance, according to LAM social movement activists, seemingly supportive NGOs not averse to social activism of a certain political ilk (or ‘social action groups/NGOs’, Kamat, 2002, p.9–13) are unable to, or do not, maintain their stand for various reasons including: state pressure and control through the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) mechanism and the threat of de-registration (which would make them financially inoperable); being blacklisted as anti-industrial NGOs (168 NGOs in Orissa were de-registered in 2012); and due to state-corporate intimidation. These NGOs then move towards questionable positions and roles (from a movement perspective) that misrepresent (to the public and movements alike) and indirectly undermine or abruptly ignore movements they once supported. According to LAM movement activists, it was not uncommon for these NGOs who originally claimed to be with the anti-mining/anti-industrial movement to change their position to one in favor of displacement and negotiation (shape-shift) and in the process begin to confuse and derail movement opposition by attempting to motivate people in the opposite direction. As movement activist PM points out, ‘In the beginning there were no people called sapakhsyabadi or pro-displacement but after these so-called activist-NGOs worked to raise the amount of compensation, people withdrew from the movement and formed the pro-displacement forum’ (PM, Kalinganagar movement activist – Bisthapan Virodhi Manch, Interview notes, April, 2010).

This shape-shifting is also evident in the case of the movement in Kashipur (against Utkal Alumina/UAIL bauxite mining), where four such popular movement-sympathetic social action NGOs – AG, AK, L and W (acronyms are used here at the request of the participants who felt these state and national level NGOs could cause ‘trouble’ for them) – were deregistered (lost their Foreign Contribution numbers and ability to receive foreign funds for 1998–99). While AG even had its premises overturned by goondas (goons) and ‘at least 3 of these NGOs initially raised awareness, promoted organizing activities and organized resistance to the UAIL mine’, today ‘AG is involved with mega international funding for watershed development while AK is busy implementing JFM (Joint Forest Management) with Japanese funding and neither have any apparent interest in anti-mining/anti-industrial development movements’ (VH, Orissa Adivasi Manch movement activist, Interview notes, March 2010). In fact, according to an NGO-insider, one of these NGOs ‘promised the government to help contain the movement in return for rescinding its decision to deregister the NGO’ (Focus group notes, February, 2008). Speaking in reference to the Indrimagevati reservoir project (funded by the World Bank in the 1980s and 90s with at least 40,000 people displaced, 80 percent of whom were Adivasi), Indrimagevati Vistapita Lokmanch movement activists1 who once viewed AG as an activist NGO supportive of the anti-dam movement, now perceive it to be ‘colluding with dam builders and INGOs [funding agencies] like Action Aid for whom they have become surveyors of displacement after having started off as people’s activists against displacement’ or ‘who have taken on the role of government by taking responsibility for DDPs’ (AG did receive Action Aid funding for this project from 1993–2002 – Padel & Das, 2010, p. 99). Similarly, anti-UAIL (Utkal Alumina bauxite mining) movement activists from the Prakritik Sampad Suraksha Parishad (PSSP) question AG’s initial role in working with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)2 and its entity – Orissa Tribal Development Project (OTDP) – for the Kashipur project in the late 1980s. Activists believed that the project’s infrastructure (e.g. roads) as being developed for mining companies (and industrial development), even though IFAD was supposed to be funding agricultural development. Other NGOs similarly scrutinized by LAM activists as having changed colors/sides (shape-shifters) include GR, now in the ‘sold out to aluminium’ category. GR is seen as an Indian NGO that ignores popular movement activism espoused by movements like those in LAM, and instead accepts funds from the likes of mining giant BHP Billiton for mini-hydropower in Kalahandi district and remains content to promote the use of bio-gas cookers in Orissa. According to an ADEA (Adivasi-Dalit Ekta Abhijan Land, Forest and Unity Movement) movement activist,

… such so-called activist NGOs (andolono-badi sanstha/NGO) backtrack when people’s movements become a reality taking up land, forest and water claims – they develop cold feet (seethiro hoi janti) and change their programs to child education, anti-malaria, anti-tobacco campaigns, vocational training, SHG (Self-Help Groups) promotion and flood villages with so many programs that we don’t have time to think collectively or to fight for our claims (focus group notes, April 2009).

Even in Kalinganagar, Action Aid-supported NGOs started SHGs and confused the women about the movement … At a meeting in Muniguda, Action Aid’s women’s representative was thrown out of the people’s meeting … we don’t allow them to come in to our anti-POSCO process (PP, POSCO Pratirodh Manch movement activist, Interview notes, March 2010).

An OAM (Orissa Advasi Manch) movement activist, VH,3 and activists from the NBA4

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