Colonisation: The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area … The action of appropriating a place or domain for one's own use.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
It is a strange irony of history that many countries, once colonized by other nations, turn to colonizing their own or other peoples once they have gained freedom. During India’s independence struggle against the British empire, Mahatma Gandhi warned that it was not enough to send the colonisers packing, but as important was a change in the mindset of Indians themselves with regard to the use of power. If we were not to simply substitute an alien power’s rule over us with our own hierarchies, we needed an ethical transformation, one which gave all humans equal status, dignity, and respect, and swaraj, self-rule and autonomy with responsibility towards the autonomy and freedom of others. If we pursued the economic path taken by countries like Britain with its foundation of western industrial modernity, he said, we would never gain true freedom, for it was inherently exploitative of other people and of nature. Babasaheb Ambedkar, leader of India’s Dalits (‘outcastes’, ‘untouchables’) and Chair of the drafting committee of India’s Constitution, repeatedly stressed the importance of equality and justice amongst Indians, without which political democracy would never flourish.
These observations have been prophetic. India has attempted to become an economic powerhouse in the image of ‘developed’ countries, a path that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru firmly walked soon after Independence. Simultaneously it has moved only half-heartedly towards empowering communities to be full participants in democracy, and dealing with inequities of caste, gender, and ethnicity. We have (to put it a bit bluntly) replaced a set of white rulers with brown ones, and they have mostly indulged in policies and programmes resulting in rampant internal exploitation and increasing inequities.
In a detailed analysis of India's development - Churning The Earth. The Making Of Global India - especially since 1991 when it entered into an economic globalization phase, Aseem Shrivastava and I showed how both nature and rural communities across the country have been displaced, exploited, and dispossessed in the name of ‘the national good’. Several hundred thousand hectares of forests have been ‘diverted’ for mining, dams, industries and so on, with the rate of diversion significantly rising since the 1990s; and according to researcher HM Mathur of Council for Social Development, over 60 million people physically uprooted for the same; apart from a series of other starkly negative ecological, social and economic impacts. Albeit carried out by our own elected governments, the process of occupation and dispossession that this has entailed is not so very different from what the British colonial powers did. In some parts of India it is even as brutal, where armed police have been used to evict resistant landholders, forest-dwellers and coastal fishers; in others it is more benign, with offers (though rarely implemented) of full rehabilitation and of employing people being displaced in the industries or mines coming up on their lands. Overall, the situation is so dire that the draft report of a committee set up by the Union Ministry of Rural Development in 2009, called the process in central India the “biggest grab of tribal lands since Columbus”. While the final report erased these particular words, it still noted the seriousness of landgrabbing.
India (like China, though on much smaller scale) has also been colonising other parts of the world in its quest to become an economic superpower. Many of its companies have grown to become Multinational Corporations, and with direct or indirect help from the Indian government, are occupying lands in Africa and Latin America, dispossessing local communities and wildlife for commercial production of cash crops, minerals, or other ‘goods’ the global economy demands.
This phenomenon of occupying and exploiting, taking place across many of the former colonized countries and regions or in formations like BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), is in many ways so close to colonization that it has been called sub-colonialism, or even sub-imperialism. Across India and in places its corporations are active, the above trends have only increased as its economy has become more privatized and corporatized, especially since the early 1990s, showing all the signs of what geographer and anthropologist David Harvey called ‘accumulation by dispossession’.
Going after its ‘frontiers’
Now, the Indian state is eyeing the ‘frontiers’ of the country that have so far been relatively less impacted by its development sub-colonialism – regions in its far north, northeast, and the islands off its coasts. In some of these, the mindset of developing mentality is accompanied by undisguised attempts at cultural homogenization, in line with the agenda of the political party in power (BJP) to convert India into a ‘Hindu rashtra’ (nation).
The most blatant of these relates to Lakshadweep, a set of coral reef fringed islands in the Indian Ocean. These ecologically fragile and biodiversity-rich islands have been home to an Muslim population, engaged primarily in fishery-based livelihoods, some agriculture, tourism, and government jobs. Lakshadweep has its own administration, but under the direct rule of the central government. A recently appointed Administrator (heading the administration) P.K. Patel, a BJP party politician, came up with a series of decisions and proposals that shocked the islands’ residents. This included measures that were clearly aimed at undermining Islamic culture, such as banning meat in schools, opening up liquor shops, and specifying that anyone with more than two children would not be eligible for government jobs. Also proposed are major investments in tourism and urban development, and the Administration is seeking to concentrate more power in its hands to acquire any lands for this through a draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation.
Islanders were quick to protest in one voice (including local BJP politicians, who resigned en masse), and civil society groups across India supported them. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah assured that no decisions would be taken without consulting the islands’ residents. Yet the Administrator remains in place, the proposals are still being promoted, with no sign of local consultations. And now in the latest move, global tenders were issued on 31st July for the construction of 370 beach villas and water villas, with no environmental or social impact assessment. Remarkably, a 2020 draft Tourism Policy for the islands aimed to “develop Lakshadweep as a unique tourism destination with a key focus on responsible tourism management and sustainable development, thereby minimizing the negative social, environmental and economic impact, with a simultaneous development of optimum infrastructure, alternate economic avenues and the society as a whole.” But the same document introduced a loophole: “This policy will not apply to the pilot projects, which are proposed to be taken up by the Lakshadweep Administration in coordination with the NITI Aayog for Public-Private Partnership based development of island water villa resorts projects in the islands of Kadmat, Minicoy and Suheli Cheriyakara.” Clearly, commercial interests and profits are being allowed to trump good sense!
On the other side of India lie its second (much bigger) set of islands, Andaman and Nicobar. With a chequered history including occupations by the Danes, Japanese and British, and considerable movement of mainland Indians to settle here, they are originally the home of some of India’s oldest indigenous people. They also contain rich rainforests and coral reefs, and with high degrees of animal and plant endemism and diversity, are considered a global biodiversity hotspot. They are also geologically vulnerable being in an active seismic zone (they were quite close to the epicentre of the massive 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands). For decades they have been at the centre of a debate typical to such areas: impose universal notions of development regardless of their ecological, geological and cultural fragility, or evolve pathways of well-being that respect this fragility.
Now, it seems that the central government wants to ram home the first of these approaches. The NITI Aayog, the central think-tank advising the government on development matters (and also involved in pushing the tourism project in Lakshadweep mentioned above), has proposed a massive investment in the largest of the islands, Great Nicobar. This includes an international container trans-shipment terminal, an international airport, a power plant and a township complex, pegged by a private consultancy firm in its pre-feasibility report at a staggering INR 75,000 crores (approximately a billion US dollars).
The consequences will be disastrous, to put it mildly. 166 sq kms (16600 hectares) of the island, much of this comprised of biologically rich and globally important coastal systems and tropical forests, part of a World Heritage Site, will be exploited. Already the Galathea Wildlife Sanctuary has been denotified for the purpose. Complementing its enormous biological importance is the fact that Great Nicobar is a tribal reserve for two indigenous populations, Nicobari and Shompen, the latter recognised by the Indian government as ‘Particularly Vulnerable’. Once this infrastructure is up, it is estimated that there will be 650,000 new settlers … a massive jump from its current population of 8000. The consequences for land, forests, wildlife, water, and local indigenous people are pretty obvious, as pointed out by researcher Pankaj Sekhsaria. He also shows how decisions on all this have been quietly pushed through the corridors of power without public consultation.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands are also being proposed as one of the sites for a palm oil push that the Indian government is making. This is stated to be part of the atmanirbharbharat (self-reliant India) approach Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in May 2020 as part of the recovery package out of Covid, and intended to reduce dependence on palm oil imports from south-east Asia and elsewhere. Sounds good, except that across south-east Asia, such plantations have left a trail of ecological and social havoc: rainforests cut down and replaced by monocultures, communities uprooted and traditional livelihoods destroyed, wildlife decimated, and increasing water scarcity. Environmentalists and social activists fear the same will happen in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Concerns about such impacts have already prompted neighbouring Sri Lanka to ban new oil palm plantations and replace existing ones with ecologically more sensitive crops. Big brother India should learn from its smaller neighbours.
Large-scale palm oil plantations are also proposed in north-east India, a region that has historically seen a convoluted approach by the Indian state. Significant parts of this region, with cultural and ecological affinities closer to east Asia than to the rest of India’s mainland, have historically integrated into India somewhat reluctantly, or in any case demanded that their own uniqueness and ways of life be respected. One response by the Indian state has been to pour in lots of money and appease local populations by promises of development; another has been the stationing of large amounts of military (its proximity to Myanmar/Burma and China being an excuse or reason, depending on one’s point of view), and its use to quell dissent and resistance. Both have ended up disrupting ecosystems and livelihoods. In the last few years one of the biggest investments, both public and private, has been in hydro-electricity projects, often touted as ‘green energy’ and even put up for climate funding, but with severe ecological and socio-cultural costs, uncertain sustainability due to the area’s geological fragility and to climate change, and dubious economic feasibility.
And then there is Ladakh, India’s northernmost region, a vast trans-Himalayan area of cold desert adjoining Tibet. The people here are a predominantly Buddhist and Muslim faiths, and as in the case of Lakshadweep, the central government seems to be pushing or supporting a combined strategy of neo-liberal development with cultural hegemony. In August 2019, when it abolished the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state (within which Ladakh was a district), it converted Ladakh into a Union Territory (UT) under its direct control. People of Ladakh were happy as UT status had been a long-standing demand; two years later, they are not so sure, as they see worrying signs of culturally and ecologically insensitive decision-making by New Delhi. There are specific proposals for several hydro-electricity projects on the River Indus and its tributaries, and for mega-solar and geothermal power generation; whispers of uranium and other mining; and a railway line tunneling through from Kashmir into Ladakh. While decentralized renewable energy is welcome, and applications like passive solar technology have a proven feasibility and huge potential, the government’s proclivity towards centralized, mega-scale solutions is disturbing.
As in Lakshadweep, there is also what seems to be a Hindu right-wing push in Ladakh. For instance, a multi-faith festival that has been going on at the Indus River for some years now, in which local Buddhist organisations were also co-organisers, was suddenly converted this year into a ‘Mahakumbh’ (an explicitly Hindu mega-festival celebrated in some of the religion’s holiest spots), and 10,000 ‘holy’ men were to descend on Ladakh for it in early August. A strong pushback by the Ladakh Buddhist Association and other local groups, pointing both to the religious bias and to the continuing threat of COVID19, put a stop to it. But it would not be past the rightwing organisers to push for a similar event next year.
Other ‘frontier’ areas under attack are Kachchh, a unique, vast grassland and salt desert ecosystem with a largely pastoral, agricultural and crafts-based people in western India bordering Pakistan; and Kashmir in the Himalayan belt, whose special constitutional status of relative autonomy was taken away by the central government in 2019. Both have been are or being opened up for huge corporate investments that are unlikely to consider their ecological fragility and the cultural sensitivity of their peoples.
Of course, not everything proposed by the government or by business in these ‘frontier’ areas is problematic. Plans for decentralized renewable energy, for support to organic agriculture and horticulture (Ladakh has a Mission Organic with an aim to convert the region to 100% organic by 2025), for supporting homestays and other community-based ecotourism, and job opportunities for youth in some new sectors have positive potential … though even with these a lot will depend on how top-down and straitjacketed the approach is, how much it is subject to elite capture, and how much local communities and civil society are really involved. But the big-ticket plans, whether with benign intentions or vested interests, are pointing to a continued sub-colonialism that is deeply problematic. This is especially so given that in each of these areas, there are already several proven solutions to the needs of livelihood security, communications, energy, food, etc. Some of these are even simply about sustaining traditional systems that have worked for centuries, albeit in some modified forms that could help generate interest and revenue as needed. A particular challenge is about creating avenues, in traditional and modern sectors, that are able to attract the youth who are otherwise migrating out in droves. Mega-development of the kinds being pushed will not do this for more than a handful of local people.
Extreme hunger can drive the human body to consume its own innards. The insatiable appetite of the growth-centric economy, with its foundations in capitalist and statist relations, is doing precisely the same. How long can a people, a civilization, survive on such self-cannibalism … even when augmented by devouring other peoples?