Climate change and “disaster aid” in India

October 16, 2017

Much like Trump, India's political leaders say they are providing "aid"--while pursuing policies that punish the poor and line the pockets of the rich, explains Preeti Singh.

DONALD TRUMP was widely disparaged for happily tossing paper towels into a crowd at a disaster relief distribution center during an early October trip to Puerto Rico. Given the devastation throughout the region, Trump's behavior struck many as a sign of his obliviousness about the depth of the crisis.

But it also served as a representative example of the politics of "humanitarian aid" offered by states and institutions complicit in creating such disasters in the first place.

In this case, Trump has repeatedly patted himself on the back for a job well done in responding to the devastation in Puerto Rico--in a way that hides from view the decades-long colonial subjugation by the U.S. that left Puerto Rico's infrastructure badly compromised even before it was hammered by hurricanes supercharged by climate change.

On August 29, when huge parts of South Asia--India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Cambodia--experienced some of the worst floods in decades, similarly self-satisfied noises about "relief" and "aid" were heard from complicit parties throughout the region.

Farmers march to stop the construction of the Ranganadi River Dam in Assam, India
Farmers march to stop the construction of the Ranganadi River Dam in Assam, India (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti | Facebook)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on aerial tours of the affected areas in India--from the northern state of Bihar to Assam in the northeast part of the country--while announcing large amounts to be spent on disaster relief.

Yet the floods that led to the deaths of more than 1,400 people and displaced thousands more weren't "unprecedented" in scale for those inhabiting the region. They are part of a familiar pattern.

IN JUNE 2013, the flooding of Uttarakhand in northern India caused massive landslides, killing more than 5,000 people. In 2014, Jammu and Kashmir bore the brunt of disastrous floods, when the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers overflowed their banks, affecting nearly 2 million people.

The precarity of the Brahmaputra basin has been made worse by government policies, to the extent that devastation now arrives in Assam on an annual basis. Around 40 people died last year in the floods, and thousands were displaced. This year, the floods impacted 25 districts and more than 3.2 million people, with more than 100 losing their lives.

But climate change in India has not just been a story of catastrophic flooding. There have also been intense droughts.

Nearly 60,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the past 30 years, and the rate appears to be on the rise. While some in the media continue to detach these deaths from economic and social conditions, rising debts and crop failures due to recurring droughts are the primary causes for the suicides.

A recent study draws definitive connections between climate change, agricultural income and self-harm in India. For every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature, writes Tamma A. Carleton of the University of California at Berkeley, there are about 70 suicides on average in India.

But as journalist P. Sainath points out, temperature increases are just part of the story. Rainfall can sometimes be erratic, but droughts in India are also the result of available water resources being monopolized by the powerful, who shut out the poor.

This monopolization of water happens at the level of drought relief, too. Resources earmarked for relief generally end up being dispersed to private contractors, which is effective at creating profits, but not trickling down to the poorest of farmers. While the relief gets siphoned away by a corrupt bureaucracy, the sweeping schemes and "preventive" measures undertaken by the Indian state end up causing more harm than good.

As an example, the Modi government has been pushing for the revival of the $168 billion National River Linking Project (NRLP), first conceived in 1982. This mammoth operation is supposed to transfer water from river basins with a surplus to river basins with a deficit.

The NRLP, the world's largest irrigation and infrastructure project, is being touted as the solution to India's droughts and flooding. The goal is to create 30 links among some 37 rivers through a network of nearly 3,000 storage dams to form a gigantic South Asian water grid.

But Himanshu Thakkar, convenor of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, has called the NRLP an impending disaster. Not only will it destroy entire ecosystems by submerging thousands of hectares of natural forest reserves and sanctuaries, but it will extract an enormous human cost by displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Furthermore, the sweeping policies of Modi's Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which are supposed to improve everything from corruption to droughts, cause direct harm to Indian farmers. Last year, the demonetization policy of the government, which involved the overnight banning of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, had an adverse effect on rural India.

This June, five protesters were shot dead when desperate farmers in the region of Mandausar, Madhya Pradesh, organized a farmers' strike to demand loan waivers and better prices for their produce. While neither the police nor the Central Reserve Police forces, with their abysmal record in human rights, took responsibility for the shooting, they also offered no other explanation for who could have fired the shots.

THE RHETORIC of "relief" is also employed to justify the building of dams around the country, even as environmentalists have repeatedly pointed out how such dams tend to intensify rather than prevent floods.

Take, for example, the case of Maharashtra, which has the country's biggest concentration of large dams and the least irrigation potential.

Emmanuel Theophilus, in his 2014 report on the impact of hydropower projects on river ecosystems, notes that when the government or energy companies acquire a stretch of river, local communities are banned from fishing in the waters, selling their produce or even crossing the river in their own boats, unless they have licenses from bidders who are industrial-scale contractors.

Charting the connections between state, corporations and militarism, Theophilus critiques the increasing surveillance near hydropower installation sites. The argument is compelling, especially since India continues to undertake hydropower projects in some of the most militarized regions within its borders.

From Assam to Kashmir to Bastar, the landscape is dotted with dams under construction against the will of the people.

The All Assam Students Union and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (Farmers Freedom Struggle Committee) have called for the decommissioning of the Ranganadi River Dam, which has been responsible for frequent flash flooding. The landscape of India-occupied Kashmir is marked not just by one of the largest military occupations in the world, but also by a large number of dams that threaten its agrarian economy and the lives of people living downstream.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), a major source of contention between India and Pakistan, effectively excludes Kashmir from participating in any decisions regarding its own water, which has been a point of contention between India and Pakistan for decades. As David Heines points out in his book Indus Divided: India-Pakistan and the River Basin Dispute, "neither the Indian nor the Pakistani government would tolerate even the appearance of an implication for Kashmiri sovereignty in the Indus treaty."

The militarization of Bastar, projected as a way of wresting sovereignty of the region from the Maoists, is well known as an excuse to drive through the corporate land grab that precedes development projects, which is geared towards dispossessing Indigenous communities in the region.

AS MORE and more land is turned into Special Economic Zones and doled out to powerful corporations, the police presence in the region continues to increase in order to crush the resistance of displaced Indigenous populations.

Nandini Sundar points out how this history of mining and militarism in the Bastar region acquired force in 2003 with the neoliberalization of India's mining policy. As evidence of this process, Sundar notes the support of industry associations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry to the government's offensive against the Maoists, seen as a major obstacle to land acquisition.

Yet all across India, some of the most vulnerable people are out on the streets protesting the corporate plunder of the lands they live on. Huge movements against the construction of dams have broken out around the country. The people of Bastar have fought their oppressors for decades to assert their rights and the sanctity of the land they live on. Thousands of farmers in Bhangar are protesting the violent takeovers of their agricultural lands by the crony capitalist Indian government in collusion with corporate giants.

When the media speak of "natural disasters," they imply a helplessness of humanity in the face of them. But the resistance against climate change must necessarily be human--and it needs to unite Indigenous people, farmers and workers in a unified resistance against corporate plunder and manmade disasters.

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