Modernity as a Vision of Conquest: Development and Culture in India


Despite its image as a culturally diverse land, contemporary India is in fact a nation-state in conflict with its own people. It is engaged in a process of development that, far from enriching the lives of its myriad indigenous cultures, threatens them with disruption, domination and destruction. With a state-oriented notion of culture, the Indian development process has become increasingly associated with state authoritarianism and repression. This has been met with popular dissent, expressed in the emergence of social movements.

Development and the State

The development process in India has been influenced, in part, by the transnationalization of capital within the world economy, which has enabled both international funding agencies (e.g., the World Bank) and private multinational corporations (e.g., Union Carbide) to deploy capital and labor within India. The Indian economy depends on foreign technology and finance in order to support capital-intensive modes of industrial and agricultural development. For example, between 1964 and 1970 India paid Rs 742 million (US $62 million) for foreign technology; in 1979/1980 $1 billion was borrowed from the World Bank in order to support rural and urban development and industrialization by dominant Indian corporations such as the Birlas and the Tatas. As a result, the Indian state has massed a sizeable foreign debt with both the US and USSR and has furthered a development process that greatly influences the relationship between the state and the various indigenous cultures within its boundaries.

The state, of course, is not an independent reality. It is made up of the institutions that are, in turn, related to the international economy. Hence, despite certain external financial and technological dependence, indigenous development in India is directed by the dominant classes of India's state capitalist system, namely the bureaucratic elite and a ruling coalition of the national bourgeoisie (large private business), the army, wealthy peasant farmers, small traders and money lenders.

The ideological model of development adopted by the state has been greatly influenced by Western modes of development, growth and modernization, which, in part, perceive rural development as a problem of sectoral development, dependent upon an industrial urban economy. Indian development has, therefore, followed a path of capitalist industrialization that has concentrated employment, manufacturing and construction within India's largest cities and exacerbated rural poverty, leading to mass migration to the cities. For example, Bombay's immigration accounts for 35-40 percent of its annual population growth. Regional imbalances have thus been created by the dominance of the Indian metropolis over the region or state in which each is located.

Due to its dependency on foreign technology and finance and its adoption of Western development models, India has become (like so much of the Third World) the object of a modernization process that has already unfolded in the West. The unequal economic exchange that exists between the advanced capitalist nations and the developing nations has been accompanied by an uneven cultural exchange that emphasizes Western values and devalues indigenous systems of knowledge. This Western bias is evident in the importance placed upon modernity within the development process in India; it equates modern scientific rationality and technology with a successful development process and devalues non-modern cultures and their traditional systems of knowledge.

State-sponsored and -directed development and state-owned scientific knowledge and technology are seen as opposed to "unscientific" and "irrational" lifestyles of the traditional cultures of India. Indeed, according to Nandy (1984), the three primary reasons for the existence of the modern state in India have become the maintenance of national security, the implementation of development and the acquisition of and subsequent management of modern science and technology. Together, these functions have modernized and transformed the Indian economy and society. They have also facilitated the state's securing control over natural and financial resources; consolidated the power of those directing and benefiting from the state apparatus; and callously destroyed indigenous cultures with their own ethnic science and technology, defining resistance to development as "cultural lag" or "false consciousness."

The Indian development process reflects, in part, the relationship between state and culture. Culture is made to contribute to the sustenance and growth of the state rather than the state being made to meet the needs of the survival and enrichment of culture. This process has been accentuated as elite Indian society has become increasingly Westernized, and as a highly centralized, modern nation-state with a Brahmanic idiom, has sought to impose its vision of modernity and development upon the diversity of Indian culture.

Such a process has marginalized great numbers of people who interpret their predicament in terms foreign to the modern world and the state-centered culture. Cultural survival has become the defense of native theories of science, education and social change and as this defense has become increasingly articulated through their rebellion, social movements have been accompanied by an increasingly oppressive state machinery.

In what has been termed the "Backdoor Emergency" the Indian state has, over the past decade, increasingly employed the politics of repression to uphold its control, power and dominance. Through the political manipulation of social division (e.g., communalism); through the introduction of "Black Laws" such as the Preventative Detention Act, the Anti-Encroachment Bills, the Terrorist Act and the Special Powers Act; and through the forcible relocation and cultural disruption of countless rural and urban communities, the Indian state moves inexorably toward the Bureaucratic-Authoritarian model as posed by O'Donnell and given such grim expression in the dictatorships of Latin America.

Development as Cultural Ethnocide

The map of India provides grim testament to the assault on traditional communities that the development process has engendered. The Narmada River Valley Project - a scheme to build 30 major dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 minor irrigation schemes, stretching from the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat to the Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh - will entail the submergence of 375,000 ha of forests and about 80,000 ha of fertile agricultural and grazing lands. Not only will this lead to an irreversible loss of rare wild flora and fauna but due to the project more than 1 million people will be displaced. In Orissa, the Balipal National Missile Testing Range will displace an estimated 40,000 people. The Rengali Dam has already uprooted more than 11,000 people. In Bihar, the Koel Karo hydroelectric project threatens the livelihood of approximately 15,000 Adivasi families in about 100 villages.

In order to fully comprehend the environmental and cultural impact on local communities of such displacement, I will consider in detail the Inchampalli-Bhopalapatnam Dam project, which spans the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and the Singrauli industrial development program in Madhya Pradesh.

Located in the Gadchiroli district of eastern Maharashtra, the Inchampalli Dam project has been undertaken by both the central and the state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. This hilly, dry, heavily forested area is inhabited by tribal cultures - according to the 1981 census, 41.5 percent (250,000) of the total population is comprised of scheduled tribes. There is no industrialization in this district and the majority of the population is dependent on subsistence agriculture and the forest for its livelihood. The building of the dam and irrigation project (plus the feeder dam at Bhopalapatnam) will necessitate the submergence of 100,858 ha of land (including 40,000 ha of forest) and 143 villages in the three states, will provide irrigation facilities for 131,400 ha and generate approximately 1,885 megawatts of power.

The irrigation facilities will only economically benefit those who own land. The tribes in this region have neither large holdings to profit from the use of the irrigation facilities nor the capacity to pay for them. Most of the skilled and unskilled labor for the dam's construction is being brought in from outside the region to prevent unionization. Local tribals have only been casually and temporarily employed.

Ecologically and culturally, the project will cause the loss of great expanses of forest and its associated flora and fauna, the traditional habitat of the tribal communities. The forests are inhabited by various tribes - Madias, Raj Gonds, Parshans and Kolam. Most of them practice settled cultivation, but a section of the Madias, inhabiting the remote tracts of the Bhamragadh area, still practice shifting cultivation in spite of government schemes to force them to practice plow cultivation. They are all, however, forest dwellers who have inhabited the forests for centuries, their economic and cultural life being inextricably linked to the forest.

Development and modernization has affected the tribal culture in two ways. First, the activities of commercial enterprises such as the Maharashtra Forest Development Corporation and Ballarpur Paper Mills have brought the tribals into contact-with a cash economy and exploitative relationships. Increased forest regulations have curtailed their earlier access to the forest and its products; their culture, based on settled cultivation in relative isolation, has become increasingly marginalized, controlled by outsiders and the dictates of a wage-labor economy. Second, the estimated displacement of 66,000 people by the development schemes will necessitate the uprooting of the tribal communities and their rehabilitation outside their traditional homelands into a non-forest area such as the Nanded district.

Such displacement raises serious questions concerning the future maintenance, growth and enrichment of the Gadchiroli tribal cultures. Whether the new environment will provide them with a sufficient livelihood and whether they will be able to culturally and socially adjust to nonforest environments are questions that have received insufficient consideration from the central and state government planners. Proposals to compensate the tribals for the land under cultivation (at a rate of Rs. 4,000 per ha) are dependent on the tribal cultures owning registered pattas for that land. Although they have cultivated the land for generations, many of the tribals do not own such titles and are unlikely to receive compensation. Furthermore their removal from an economy in which internal class relations and class structures are developed to only a limited extent, to a semifeudal economy with a well-defined network of class relations and a rigid caste hierarchy is likely to seriously disrupt the tribal values of communal social life that flourish in Gond culture. Their removal from a forest habitat to the drought-prone plains of Nanded is certain to destroy that delicate interplay between culture and environment.

The effects of the development process on the agrarian-nomadic communities of the Singrauli district (spanning Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) bear a grim similarity to those on the Gond tribals. The Singrauli region comprises a series of narrow valleys surrounded by the Kaimur hills that lie between the two Indian states. Until 30 years ago, the region survived on a subsistence economy of grazing, forest products, shifting cultivation and tracts of settled cultivation.

The industrialization of the region began in 1961 with the building of the Rihand Dam, which displaced 200,000 people - 50,000 of whom disappeared, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. Coal mining in the late 1960s, followed by the construction of three superthermal power stations in the 1970s, uprooted hundreds of thousands more people from their lands and homes. With another three power stations under construction, these industrial enterprises and their associated activities have extended over an area of 18,000 km², affecting nearly 2 million people spread over 3,306 villages.

Like the Gond tribals, the agrarian communities of Singrauli heavily depend on forest resources for their livelihood. Indeed, most of the inhabitants of the area subsist from two to four months a year on forest produce. The forests provide both food and fuel to the local communities. In the local dialect fuelwood is known as razai or quilt and is of great importance to the tribal culture. However, with the onslaught of the development process, the Singrauli tribals have not only faced continuous displacement from their land and homes (some families have been displaced as many as six times in 20 years), but also have found their access to forest produce and grazing rights severely restricted by the government agencies directing the development projects.

Tribals have found that they do not possess the skills necessary to quality for the jobs modernization has brought to the area. The best they can hope to be is temporary and unskilled laborers. Modernization has also been accompanied by the disappearance of local crafts, skills considered unnecessary to the development process. Furthermore, the area faces immense environmental damage due to soil erosion, water and air pollution and the destruction of the forests.

The uprooting of forest dwellers and the destruction of the forests in both Gadchiroli and Singrauli are rationalized as being inevitable costs of development. These arguments are forwarded by those who will benefit from the development schemes - i.e., the World Bank, building contractors and the rural and urban rich. Under the shibboleth of national interest, the labor and resources of the "unorganized" sectors of society (i.e., scheduled castes, tribals, adivasis and certain artisan castes) are harnessed and exploited in the service of the ruling elites and the advanced, organized sectors of the economy.

Local traditional cultures are viewed as impediments to progress and development, the perceived economic and political benefits that accrue to the rural and urban elites. Whereas environmental costs are borne by the land, social and cultural costs are borne by the tribal communities. The unique ecology of specific regions - the symbiosis between nature and culture, environment and community - is irreparably damaged by the Juggernaut of modernization. In its wake, cultural disruption, social alienation and ethnic and economic marginalization prevail. Faced with the threat to their livelihoods and their culture that the development process has engendered, communities across India have begun to organize themselves against development schemes and the government and private agencies directing them.

Social Movements and Cultural Survival The emergence of social movements in India can be seen as both a response to the development process (and the incapacity or refusal of the state to provide adequate solutions to the dilemma of the affected communities) and as an attempt to create political alternatives outside the purview of organized political parties. These movements have been organized around a variety of political, cultural, economic, ecological and educational issues; indeed, movements exist (in one form or another) in opposition to most of the major development projects that are at present underway in India. Many of the peasant- and tribal-based movements are ecologically motivated, concentrating on the preservation of their environment, livelihood and culture. However, the focus of many of these struggles is that of rehabilitation and resettlement after the development process has taken place rather than direct opposition to development projects and their purpose. For example, in the Singrauli area, much of the collective resistance has concentrated on the displacement issue. Tribals in the area, working with voluntary organizations, have demanded that land be allocated to them and to landless families before they acquiesce to evacuation from the areas that are to be flooded. Alternatively, in the Gadchiroli region, Gond forest dwellers have organized themselves under the banner of the Adivasi Kisan Shetmajur Sangathana (AKSS), which is led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). This movement is attempting to prevent the Inchampalli Dam project from taking place. As their influence has spread throughout the region, the Maharashtra government has initiated massive police repression against them. Although these movements have had only limited success until now (principally in the area of radicalizing tribal dwellers and raising consciousness), other movements in India have been more successful, most notably the Chipko movement in Uttar Pradesh. Situated in the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, this essentially women-led movement has protested the social forestry programs of the government - that is, planting commercial trees such as eucalyptus and teak in the place of indigenous mixed forests. When faced with the deforestation of their habitat the women proceeded to hug the trees in order to prevent their felling. This was followed by more organized, widespread protests and direct action against the Forest Department in order to preserve their environment. Such nonviolent resistance has been incredibly successful in this region where the continued actions of the Chipko movement over the past 15 years have prevented the destruction of the forests and people's livelihoods. Throughout India, struggles for cultural survival are confronted with the seemingly inexorable process of development and the apparatus of exploitation, domination and repression that accompanies it. The aforementioned are just some examples of a drama that continues to unfold. A state-oriented culture that is centralist, modernist and elitist in outlook manifests itself in practice as a bureaucratic-authoritarian state whose raison d'etre is the preservation of national security, the management of science and technology and the implementation of the development process. Confronted with traditional cultures at odds with the universalizing tendencies of modernity and development, the state has reacted with a premeditated disregard for cultural diversity. On one level the state attempts to fossilize culture to make it harmless. Culture then is reduced to ethnic arts, music and language, which are co-opted by the rich as examples of how "cultivated" they are. On another level the state employs the repressive unity of power - domination, displacement and destruction - to remove the impediments to progress that indigenous cultures are seen to present. Faced with such an onslaught many communities see the collective response and struggle of social movements as their only recourse - cultural survival becomes their way of life. It is important to note that such survival does not imply the isolation and fossilization of a particular culture - the preservation of a primitive lifestyle and economy for its own sake - but rather the preservation of tribal culture within the context of a development process taking place within that culture's own environment and under its control. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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