‘There’s nothing lost if the Nano isn’t produced’

CHANDRASHEKAR HARIHARAN writes from New Delhi: The Singur story took a twist when Ratan T threatened to pull out. The Communist chief minister Buddhadeb B squirmed under the collar. Mamata B faltered: could she be right in pushing it beyond the brink? And then the entire Indian industry decided to throw its weight behind the promoters.

So, what does the West Bengal government do?

Make peace with industry, or with Mamata?

Or should it look for a story beyond all this?

Without her knowing it, or having the vision for it, Mamata has hit upon a very fundamental challenge before governance and governments in the country: 50 years of creating these urban divides with industrialization has led government and industry to see only their problems and remain completely unaware, or intolerant, of the larger frame into which they fit.

We have had 50 years of an era dominated by industry in which the right to make a rupee at whatever cost is rarely challenged.

How do we become mindful of the ‘larger frame’?

How do we ensure that a Tata or any business/ industrial house does not devise and apply plans and visions without reckoning with the complex social and ecological systems against which they are pitted, every time they go out and pick up large tracts of land and lay them waste with machinery and shop floor workers?

Industrial products and consumers’ wares are, of course, necessary and sometimes desirable even if in the Nano’s case the media and industry are oblivious to the grim predictions of self-destruction for cities that more such cars bring.

The Lord knows such investments could be put to better use to make for good and better public transport.

And, what is indeed the debt that the company owes those people whom they uproot by buying their farm lands under the deceitful cover of acquisition lands that these farmers owned for many generations.

What is ‘compensation’? How much does land cost show up as a percentage on any project’s cost-matrix? It’s so small it doesn’t even show up, often!

When and how did industry in India become as self-righteous and brazen about the ‘favour’ they are doing governments and people by expanding industry and their business?

Isn’t it about time industry called for a modest, gentle and cautious attitude toward people and natural resources they displace?

If business takes arrogant, belligerent and aggressive positions in the face of sensitivities involving local social dynamics and enormous potential ecological damage, it will be at the peril of government, industry and finally the people.

There is a despairing parable here of how industry and governments will self-destruct if they continued to be callous toward what they offer, or don’t, to people as livelihood and employment. Livelihood restores dignity and is harder to create; employment is the easier road with infrastructure that begets money but strips people of dignity.

So what can a Tata do to offer more than the symbolic gesture of a school and a hospital as all such businesses have done in the past?

“It is not the business of business to do anything but maximize gain” is the stereotype we have got from these leaders all these years. But will that do, in to a future which has no precedence from the past that it can draw upon for solutions?

What Mamta has done is open what, I hope, will be an intense public debate nationwide that will change the course of interface between business and society. What one hopes is a recant from industry instead of populating media columns with more rebuttals and threats. They must step down from these indifferent positions.

If the Nano is not produced, there is nothing lost. Indeed, there is a lot to be gained in a time when people are beginning to see good sense in public transportation and realize the cost of private transportation.

But beyond such hollow threats Indian business has much to lose if it’s going to live life the way it did for a century: it has to recognize the triple bottom line—social, economic and environmental—as one single bottom line; it has to know that without social validation business will write its own grim story of collective corporate suicide.

Ratan Tata and his men will perhaps have to only commission a simple computer-simulation of energy demand and resource consumption in the Singur area to know that these factors will soon press hard on the carrying capacity of that region.

And how could one be touted to be visionary and philanthropist if he can’t see the limits to growth that the world, as we have known, has already reached?

There is a big story beyond the Mamatas and Ratan Tatas. Here is the first stirring of a face-off that is telling us more: that you need to reach accord and accommodation with resource-use and people if you want to take something from a region.

A quid for a quo.

It has not been unknown in the past for an activist group to be termed a ‘political plant’, even a CIA agent! We must work to see that the media, the Govt and Industry don’t shift the conversation away from the basic concern—of taking a hard look at the components of growth, the technologies that produce goods, the process by which these goods are consumed, the relationship that is built with the minority of people who are displaced in the ‘larger common interest’, and the damage to the local or national environment that such projects from Industry can wrought.

Photographs: courtesy Tata Motors

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