Two stimuli for this post: the first being John Grisham’s searing novel Gray Mountain, about the havoc wreaked by Big Coal on the environment and people of small town Appalachia, in the United States, aided and abetted by unscrupulous law firms and corrupt politicians; and Donald Trump’s smug assertion that he has been ‘buying up’ politicians for years as a ‘donor’ to campaign funds, in anticipation of seeking their help in his business in the future.
This is termed clientelism and when the clients are big industrialists and businessmen, it soon leads to capture of the economy to favour the rich. This deadly combination is popularly termed as crony capitalism.
Some form of clientelism exists in all democracies where election campaigns are funded by private donations, and is therefore considered ‘legitimate’. However, when the donors call in the favours, that’s when it begins to undermine the very institutions of governance. And that is why clientelism and capture as part of the political culture are more pernicious in the long term, than overt corruption and bribery.
India for the first time in its democratic history has in power a party which makes no bones about its links with big business, and boy are they in a hurry to call in the favours! So first, we had the amendments to the land bill, which virtually gives government carte blanche to acquire any land anywhere to be handed over to private parties for ‘infrastructure’ development. However, for once a united opposition has partially stymied moves to do away with the consent clause and the socio-economic surveys, mandatory in the unamended Act. I say partially, because the Centre can now pass the buck to State Governments, and as its party or allies are in power in the most industrialised States in India, the amendments can still sneak in through the back door.
Already, the State Government of Maharashtra is contemplating an IT Policy offering greater incentives to IT Parks, like a Floor Space Index, or FSI (built-up to open land ratio) of 3 as against the 1 for commercial premises, and 2 for IT Parks. The proposed policy has also diluted the concept of IT-enabled services (ITES) to such an extent that every business which uses computers (practically everyone these days!) can claim ITES status and buy premises in these IT Parks, and get the benefits of lower stamp duty, utility charges and taxes.
The question is ‘cui bono?’ Who benefits? Those self-same industrialists who were granted vast swathes of urban land in industrial zones at throwaway prices a few decades ago, and have let their manufacturing units go under with the influx of cheap Chinese imports. Well they can now build swanky IT Parks on their industrial land, get extra FSI, get tax concessions and sell their offices to alleged ITES companies and make huge profits. Something similar is also in the works for the private Special Economic Zones in the country.
At the rural and tribal level, the government is also taking a much tougher line in dealing with those fighting for the land rights of indigenous people, branding all dissent as a ‘law and order’ problem, and even terrorism. And infrastructure projects are being cleared with such alacrity that environmental concerns are being pushed aside in haste.
The latest sleight of hand comes in the form of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, which was introduced in the Lower House of Parliament on May 8, 2015. It essentially allows use of land in a Reserved Forest or Protected Area for infrastructure projects, upon the payment of a levy, which goes into a Compensatory Afforestation Fund, allowing for the planting of trees in another location, to compensate for the area of forest lost. But as every schoolkid knows, trees alone do not a forest make. What about bio-diversity? Or the displaced forest dwellers? Or the wildlife? The environmentalists can shout themselves hoarse, but who cares, so long as the area has a new power plant, a new 6-lane highway, or whatever…
The rest of the world has closely scrutinised and criticised China for such development policies, but as the major beneficiaries of India’s ‘development’ are likely to be western MNCs, the global environmental and human development community is suspiciously silent.
In fact, in a recent infographic on the world’s 15 most polluted cities (based upon data from the World Economic Forum), Statista expressed surprise that these cities are not in China, as every westerner expected, but in India and Pakistan!
So tell me about it!