I remember writing as a student of economics in the 1980s that the way things were going, all the big political problems of the next century (at least in India-) would centre around land availability, and in an earlier post on this blog itself I quoted a UN Secretary-General to the effect that all the wars (and of course, riots-) of the 21st century would be focused on water. Also, alas, these problems have no quick-fix technical solutions visible on the horizon.
So I was reading about the recent street violence in Bengaluru not only with sadness but with a profound sense of déjà vu. I simply cannot get worked up over such things any more, unlike most ‘educated’ people below forty today, who at least profess to be amazed and shocked like little children every time.
Conflict between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (erstwhile Madras province and Mysore) has been brewing, with occasional destructive (and broadly speaking futile) public outbursts for nearly a century now. The problem has only been exacerbated by a booming population, growing per-capita water demand (which is a certain accompaniment to the conventional kind of development that has been in vogue worldwide – even the Colorado no longer flows into the sea), and increased climatic vagaries which most scientists now ascribe to global warming. No government directive, no court order can make either party ever and permanently happy, for the simple reason that there is too little water to go around, and at times the shortage becomes critical enough for people to become violently angry. If you haven’t had to stand in line for water with a bucket for hours daily for years on end, or if you are not civilized enough to empathize with those who must, you will never understand them. Certainly the current street violence could have been sharply curbed if the state government concerned had been more vigilant and prompt in taking action: there is much reason to suspect that they deliberately sat tight until things got ugly enough for the central government and the Supreme Court to grow upset, and then it was curbed quickly enough (I saw what difference government alacrity can make during the anti-Sikh riots post Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the difference between Delhi and Calcutta, when I walked around the latter city reporting on the carnage, which Jyoti Basu shut down overnight simply by calling in the army, as Rajiv Gandhi did not).
But the anger and discontent will simmer, and boil over again as soon as another severe shortage strikes. Until – God forbid – two states decide to go to war. Don’t imagine that is something impossible: far worse has often happened. That’s the advantage of knowing history. India’s founding fathers were always afraid that centrifugal tendencies could rip the young nation apart, and if such a thing happens, it will most certainly be triggered by crises over essential natural resources, not over mobile apps and fancy startups with which the urban, well-off youth, comfortably cushioned and cocooned for most of the time, keeps itself happily anesthetized. The same anger and discontent are brewing among Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi over sharing the waters of the dying, filth-filled Yamuna, and between India and Bangladesh over the Ganga waters released (or not-) through the Farakka Barrage. One only prays that the apocalypse will be delayed a bit more. That it will come is almost sure.
Which brings me to the story of Singur. Following the Supreme Court judgment (the court and the army seem to be the only institutions left in which the people can still justifiably keep faith!) – that the state government took over 1,000 acres and gave it to the Tatas unlawfully – Mamata Banerjee celebrated with a ‘people’s victory party’ at ground zero. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown is a very old proverb, so it is rare to see the kind of relief and happy smile that was visible on her face yesterday. The internet will be awash with barbs and invectives, of course: they will all try to sound ‘progressive’ and ‘rational’, but they will be primarily motivated by pure dismay and envy. Funny that in a country where we so worship success, we can’t bear to see anybody being successful and happy, even briefly, unless it somehow serves our own petty vested interests (my son the bekaar engineer could have got a job at the Nano plant, maybe, or I could have got a sub-contract supplying nuts and bolts). Let her enjoy it, because her relief and happiness are bound to be ephemeral.
She knows as well as her detractors that her state desperately needs investment in infrastructure and industry. She knows land is terribly scarce in this grossly overpopulated state (90+ million, in an area much smaller than France or Germany). Fighting for the unwillingly dispossessed at Singur brought her spectacularly to power, so she can never admit, even to herself, that she was wrong. She knows that the public euphoria over the current success story will not last long. She knows that Singur might have sent the wrong signals in some quarters at least, and she needs to woo them back. That the work culture in the state is very poor, that bureaucratic red-tapism is bad if not the worst in the country, and that there is a mafia-raaj of sorts that she can rein in only at great peril to her own political existence are three factors that will work strongly against the inflow of new investments, and there are no magic wands to get rid of them (so no point in blaming her personally, at least too much – just ask yourself, could you have done better?) Add to everything else the fact that all kinds of landholders have now tasted blood, and will ask for the earth to give up their lands to future projects, which might easily make them unviable – it is happening more and more frequently with everything from airports to roads to hospitals. A devil’s brew indeed. Unless you are really very petty-minded, won’t you wish her luck?