Image Credit: Times of India

Some BJP spokespersons believe that foreigners are trying to sabotage India’s economic growth by spurring agitations against projects of national importance. No, such agitations are intrinsic to democracy. The latest example was the stalling of construction at the mega-port at Vizhinjam, Kerala, for 140 days. Agitating fishermen, mostly Christians, were backed by the Latin Catholic Church and sundry environmentalists. Last week the agitators attacked the local police station, injuring policemen. The CPM-led state government arrested top church leaders, who called off the agitation.
Giant container ships cannot enter Indian ports, and so offload containers at the deep-water port of Colombo, to be trans-shipped to Indian ports by smaller vessels. Vizhinjam was planned to attract giant container ships away from Colombo. With a 20-metre draft it will be India’s deepest port. It is located at India’s southern tip, close to major sea routes.
Initially, the CPM opposed the project going to India’s biggest port-operator, Gautam Adani. But other bidders, unconvinced of the economic viability of the project, dropped out. The CPM had to woo Adani to do the job. This was no crony capitalist handout.
The project got environmental clearance. But fishermen blocked construction, claiming the port would accelerate coastal erosion and reduce their fish catch. They rejected expert assurances that coastal erosion was common everywhere on the west coast and building ports would not worsen the erosion or reduce fish yields.

Protests and inaction

Adani asked the state government to throw out the agitators. But for months the police allowed the agitators to block the project, saying this was a delicate matter that could turn into a Hindu-Christian clash. The police recalled a similar agitation at Vedanta’s copper smelter at Thoothukudi on pollution grounds. Experts cleared the plant. But in 2018 the police fired on agitators, killing 11. Public outrage then made it impossible to re-open the plant after fixing environmental issues: that would be seen as insulting to the 11 killed.
To avoid a similar outcome at Vizhinjam, the police for months avoided a tough crackdown. But then the agitators made the mistake of attacking a police station and injuring policemen. Church leaders behind the agitation lost their peaceful Gandhian aura. This encouraged the state to crack down. That holds lessons on dealing with agitations.
Demonstrators have delayed or scuppered many key projects. An August report said that of 1,526 ongoing central projects, 647 were delayed, up from 547 in January due to various reasons including protests, land acquisition and forest clearance delays. Some projects were delayed 23 years. The cost overrun averaged 21%.
Agitating villagers have forced the abandonment of a 60-mn-tonne oil refinery at Ratnagiri with Gulf partners. They say the refinery will pollute and devastate their lands. Environmental activists have made it impossible to build new refineries in the USA or Europe. India is, prematurely, going down that path. Land acquisition problems have stalled a nuclear power plant with French assistance. After almost two decades, India has yet to complete dedicated rail corridors from Delhi to Mumbai and Kolkata. The Prime Minister’s pet project, a bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, has also been stalled by land acquisition problems.

The challenges

The BJP blames foreign funders and activists for sabotaging India’s progress. But such agitations have spread in all democracies, especially western ones. Attitudes have shifted, with big projects seen as nuisances rather than national gems. Activists care little that economic growth gets dented: they think it more important to focus on environmental risks and citizen approval. Besides, many past projects were poorly planned and callously executed, so stopping and delaying some projects can be a public service. Past agitations have undoubtedly improved the quality and sensitivity of new projects.
But this has slowed GDP growth in the West. Several years of environmental assessment and public hearings are needed before clearing major projects, even roads. Mines and oil refineries simply cannot be built in some countries. Objectors can kill projects of national importance, ignoring scientific evidence. Fracking, for instance, has saved the US from becoming dependent on energy imports, but agitators in Europe have blocked fracking although no public harm has been demonstrated in the US. The same is true of genetically modified foods.
Western citizens increasingly want projects to come up elsewhere, not nearby. NIMBY (Not in my Backyard) has become a public position that politicians bow to. In Britain the problem is so acute that it is called BANANA—Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyplace.
Western countries did not experience such agitations when they were at India’s stage of development. India will have to live with that disadvantage: it is a price of democracy.

This article was originally published by The Times of India on December 10, 2022.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.

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Swaminathan SA Aiyer

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a graduate of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and Magdalen College, Oxford. He is currently Consulting Editor of The Economics Times and a research scholar at The Cato Institute. He has been editor of two of India’s biggest economic dailies, Financial Express in 1988-90 and The Economic Times in 1992-94. For two decades, he was also the India Correspondent of The Economist, the British weekly. He has been a frequent consultant to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He is best known for his popular weekly column in The Times of India, “Swaminomics”. Swami, as he is universally called, is also a social investor. He runs the Mukundan Charitable Trust. He has co-promoted three micro-finance institutions – Arohan in Calcutta, Sonata in Allahabad and Mimo Finance in Dehra Dun. He is on the Board of Directors of Artisans Micro Finance Ltd and hopes to convert artisans into share-owning millionaires. And he is building a fleet of medical ships on the Brahmaputra to serve islands that have never seen a doctor.