More People Displaced By Development Than By Natural Disasters

People run from war, persecution, disaster and a hopeless future. But every year, around 15 million people are also forced to leave behind their homes, land and communities because they need to make way for large dams, mines, or other large-scale projects of economic development.

  • © Gie Goris Villagers who had to flee the floods caused by the Bangsara Dam in India, must give way for a power plant © Gie Goris
  • © Gie Goris Residents of Burbuja in India threaten to burn themselves on prepared pyres if they have to move away for a power plant. © Gie Goris
  • © Gie Goris Hundreds of villages were put under water for the building of the Bangsaradam in Madhya Pradesh, India © Gie Goris

Today, 8-year old Sandhya Rani is traveling half a kilometer away from her home in PettaMettaPally, a village in the federal state of Andhra Pradesh in South India. But in a few years, this too will change when the over two kilometers long and fifty meters high Polavaram dam will be completed. Sadhya herself, however, won’t profit from this development as her entire village will be submerged by the new dam’s water.

According to the government, no less than 276 villages will be flooded this way and at least 200.000 people will have to move –300.000 people according to opponents. All of them, Stella Paul states in a recent article for Reuters, will become “development refugees” because of this dam.

The villagers from Andhra Pradesh aren’t the only victims of this large-scale development. According to migration expert Bogumil Terminski, in his recent book Development-Induced Displacement and Resettlement, fifteen million people worldwide are evicted from their homes, villages or districts each year because they need to make way for major infrastructural changes that serve the country’s economic development. Therefore, these “development refugees” – a term Terminski himself prefers to avoid, using the more academically correct “DIDR” present in the title of his book instead – constitute the biggest group of people faced with long-term displacement, since people running from floods or earth quakes tend to return rather quickly. Even conflicts last, on average, less long than most development projects do, while the latter are almost always irreversible. 

According to Terminski, the “development” people have to make way for, aren’t the giant dams and irrigation projects alone but also, among other things, road and railway infrastructures, the exploitation and transportation of mineral wealth, the expansion or entire refurbishment of cities, and even the defoliation and extension of agricultural plantations. 

Defining the real extent of this largely neglected phenomenon, which moreover primarily unfolds in the more backwards outback areas, is always a difficult task, but Terminski bases himself on a huge number of studies to arrive at these numbers. The two most noteworthy numbers in his research are: the displacement of 70 million people in China between 1950 and 2008 for development projects and, in that same period, about 50 million people are said to have been evicted from their homes in India – 40 million for dams and another 2,5 million for the mining industry.

That the numbers of displaced people are so overwhelmingly high in both of these Asian behemoths, obviously has to do with the size of their populations, but also with the economic development policy both these countries have been following.

© Gie Goris

Hundreds of villages were put under water for the building of the Bangsaradam in Madhya Pradesh, India

We will drown you all

The two most striking examples of the potential impact economic infrastructure can exert on a massive amount of citizens are, respectively, the Three Gorges Dam in China and the dam projects on the Narmada river in India. For the Three Gorges Dam, 1,26 million people will likely be evicted, while for the dams in Narmada, another 320.000 people and 90.000 hectares of forest have to go.

When big dams for waterpower or irrigation projects are built, not only people living nearby are affected. Downstream, tens of thousands of people are also losing their land and their homes as a direct result of the canals, roads, high-voltage ducts and industrial projects that usually follow right after a new dam’s been built, while others lose their fishing, hunting, or grazing grounds as a result of new dams and mines. But these “secondary victims” are never included in the estimations.

Right after independence, N.V. Gadgil, then minister responsible for one of the great dam projects, said that ‘everyone who would be thrown off his land would trade his spade for a decent home, darkness for light and fanaticism for faith’. But in 1961, the minister of finance Morarji Desai gave a very different impression when speaking to the residents of one of the zones surrounding the new dams: ‘We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up. If you move it will be good. Otherwise we shall release the waters and drown you all.” Since independence, more than 3500 big dams have been built in India.

Give us schools and forests

The mining industry, the second largest displacement factor in India, plays a crucial role in the economic boom of recent years. India is the biggest producer of mica worldwide, second biggest producer of chromite and barite, fourth of iron ore, fifth of bauxite and raw steel, seventh of manganese, and eight of aluminum. Eighty percent of the exploitation of minerals in India takes place in mines above the ground, explaining its huge ecological and social impact. 

In the Indian federal sate of Odisha, formerly Orissa, inhabitants of the village Kucheipadar were faced with both a new great aluminum forge right next to their village, as well as the destruction of hills and forests for the exploitation of bauxite. When confronting the police Bhagavan Majhi, one of the aboriginal leaders of the village’s resistance movement, asked the chief police officer: ‘Sir, what do you mean by development? Is chasing people away from their lands really what you call development? Should the people for whom this development was intended not also be able to reap the rewards? And what about the generations coming after them? That’s development too, isn’t it? Or is it really only here to satisfy the greed of a few ambassadors?’

Rakesh Kalshian, who talks about the happenings at Kucheipadar as one of many conflict stories surrounding the mining industry in India, cites Bhagavan Maji in the introduction to his book Caterpillar and the Mahua Flower. Tremor in India’s Mining Fields. ‘What we want’, Maji proclaims, ‘is permanent development. Foresee irrigation for our fields. Give us hospitals. Give us medication. Give us schools and teachers. Make sure we’ve got land and forests.’

© Gie Goris

Residents of Burbuja in India threaten to burn themselves on prepared pyres if they have to move away for a power plant.

Heightened risk of impoverishment 

The Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh will create a reservoir of 2,2 billion liters of water, which will be transported via canals to far-off regions to irrigate 280.000 hectares of agricultural fields over there. Moreover, the dam has to produce 960 megawatt of renewable energy, necessary to achieve the industrialization and urbanization of Andhra Pradesh. So it’s hard to say that there are no benefits at all to building these large-scale economic infrastructures.

The difficulty of India’s great developmental programs, however, lies in the unfair distribution of burdens and profit, and the lacking compensation for people forced to suffer the negative outcomes. Walter Fernandes, the first Indian researcher who brought the phenomenon of DIDR in India to the table, writes that: ‘It is without exception the native and poor people who pay the price, while the rewards of this development are reaped by the urban and richer parts of society.

Due to the large-scale developmental projects in India, resources have been transferred from the weakest sectors of society to those that were already privileged to begin with.’ Fernandes explains that three out of four displaced persons, since the declaration of independence in 1947, are still waiting for their resettlement and recovery.

The report Rich Lands, Poor People from the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi, states that the ‘involuntary displacement of people causes enormous psychological trauma as a consequence of the disruption of the affected people’s established way of life. Production systems are dismantled, tightly-knit groups of relatives are separated from one another, deeply rooted relationships are broken up, traditional sources of income and work are lost, ties to the markets cease to exist, and traditions related to food security and mutual credits evaporate into thin air.’

‘The existing systems of social relationships and leadership lose their credibility. Ancestral sacred places, monuments and the whole meaning of history and cultural identity will be irreversibly lost. Given that the majority of forced evictions affect tribal and otherwise vulnerable communities, those affected are often incapable of incorporating these sudden and dramatic changes into their traditional way of life.’

Michael M. Cernea analyzed this issue for the World Bank and he, too, came to the conclusion that development-induced refugees are on nearly all levels at a high risk for impoverishment. The loss of their fields, work, homes and communal goods is often permanent and results in impoverished health and malnutrition, lack of access to education and ruined social cohesion. The list is long, but not exhaustive.

Other authors point to declines in the areas of human rights, women’s rights and cultural cohesion. And to make it all worse, researchers noticed that displaced peoples, after having painfully rebuilt their lives, frequently have to leave these new lives behind as well for other developmental projects. That is why Theodore Downing in his Avoiding New Poverty: Mining-Induced Displacement and Resettlement talks about the creation of a ‘floating population of development-induced poor’.

Tribals pay the price

In India, just like in many places in Latin America where large-scale economic projects reify people, the affected communities are made up of primarily tribals, also called the Adivasi. According to Walter Fernandes in Hundred Years of Involuntary Displacement in India, 40% of those displaced by developmental actions are tribals, and in the case of mining projects, it’s more than half. The Adivasi people represent only 6 to 8 percent of the Indian population.

In some districts of Odisha, more than half of the lands previously belonging to aboriginal communities, have in the last few decades been expropriated and passed on to mining firms. Between 1950 and 1976, 4,3 million hectares of wood – the habitat of the Adivasi, Dalit or casteless people – were lost to agriculture, national defense, waterpower, irrigation, mining, urbanization, roads, and other elements of modernization and development, says researcher Smriti Das in Pressure for Conversion of Forestland to Non-Forest Users in India.

The low social status of the Adivasi and their lack of insight into how the modern state functions, make these people extremely vulnerable. They frequently possess no title deeds of the grounds they work and live on. And in those exceptional instances where the state or project developers do offer financial compensation for the loss of land, the aboriginals don’t know the proper value of these lands or how to fruitfully manage these sudden large sums of money.

In contrast to the all-encompassing cry for more and speedier development, there is the occasional plea for environmental protection. The problem with this alternative, however, says Sunita Narain from the Center for Science and Environment, is that ecological preservation also chases people away from their traditional living and working spaces. This happens when nature reserves are being sealed off without any regard for the fact that these woods are inhabited, but also as a consequence of mandatory reforestation whenever approval is given to chop down the woods for industrial projects.

Between 2006 and 2012, the Indian state obliged the plantation of 104.000 hectares of compensation forests, many times on grounds used by villagers as communal grazing grounds. These kinds of measures, no matter how well intentioned they may be, ‘turn people into the enemies of the woods, instead of their protectors’, Narain says. In reality, only 7280 hectares were planted, but the damage has already been done, and the public funds have probably been obscured.

The accumulation of exclusion, banishment, and marginalization has widened the gap between the millions of poorest people in India and the successful middle class. For years now, people have warned that this alienation feeds right into the Maoist insurgency, which is at its strongest in precisely those places where the Adivasi and Dalits are threatened by mining and other industrial projects.

‘The Polavaram dam is only for the rich, but it will harm marginalized farmers and aboriginals alike’, Madkami Sena – a Maoist leader – warns. ‘The government would do better with building smaller dams and water reserves in order to provide irrigation.’ This type of speech resonates much better with the aboriginals than the eulogies to economic growth currently so popular in the cities.

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