The archeology and anthropology of a failed investment August 29, 2012Posted by nishankmotwani in : Guest authors, India , trackback
During PhD fieldwork in 2008 land acquisition was taking place from farmers at Srungavarupu Kota (S Kota) of Vizianagaram District in Andhra Pradesh for an alumina refinery proposed by Jindal South West (JSW), part of the Indian big business Jindal Group. About 1,200 acres in total were required for the refining plant, its waste ponds and other parts. While some of the farmers at the time were refusing to sell their land most had already agreed, or been forced to agree, to the plans of what at the time seemed a well-funded private industry being established with significant government help. Vast areas of cashew plantations had been acquired and cleared at the time while some of the owners of rice and sugarcane fields were holding out for better compensation.
When I return four years later in June 2012 I get to know that there is no presence in the area of JSW for the last two years. There is indeed not even a sign that the company was ever there. But in some places in the midst of lush sugar cane fields mysterious pieces of wall rise as out of nowhere. Some of these pieces are quite long, stretching for several hundred metres, whereas others are barely a hundred or so metres long seemingly not enclosing anything in particular. One can easily imagine this to be the remnants of a lost civilization with only archaeological excavations available to establish what once actually took place here. And yet it has only been quiet for a few years now and before this on my earlier visit the place was a hub of activity, as well as filled with uncertainty about the future for those losing land and livelihood. What is it that has happened to a project which officially still remains under implementation?
Perhaps not surprisingly nobody in S Kota is able to answer this question. The only thing they know is that they have not seen anyone from the company for years and that the government is no longer pursuing the remaining parts of the proposed site. Cultivation of rice and sugarcane continues largely like before the company came along, at least for those who have not had their electricity connections cut as part of land acquisition and thus are able to pump up the plentiful groundwater which exists in the area. There is of course little certainty that farmers will be able to carry on with these activities in the future but at least for the time being they are doing ok. The cashew tree growers, a significant part of the earlier cultivators, are in a less good position since all their trees were cut down when the land was acquired. Even though the land is not used today planting new trees would be a significant investment which would not bear fruit for several years to come making it not worthwhile. Instead they have to take up various poorly paid manual labour activities in the area to make a living.
Not surprisingly the monetary compensation has largely been spent by those who sold their land with few, if indeed any, productive resources acquired. There was not that much money on offer in the first place given the high cost of buying new agricultural land elsewhere these days. And once government officials and locally influential elements had taken their cut and the rest had been divided between a number of land owners there was even less at hand. There was usually existing debts which had to be settled after which most of the compensation amount was gone. Repeatedly, the one remaining hope mentioned in villager interviews was the allotment of shares in the refinery which was part of their compensation for the land. One villager brought out a letter in English sent by the company in 2008 as evidence that she had received a share. The woman only knew Telugu and on closer inspection it turned out that the letter was only an expression of intent to allot a share in the future. Hope for a share in a non-existent refinery was all that remained other than continuing to cultivate land now owned by JSW but sure to be used for one industry or another in the future. The project has thus managed to further marginalize already very poor adivasi farmers while not reaching the goal of establishing a new industrial plant in the area which could have at least offered some amount of hope for improvement. Caught between attempts to promote industry and support the rural poor this project, like many others, regrettably manages to do neither.
Patrik Oskarsson is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India.