For quite some time, a piece of news showing India has 21 million jobless has triggered fear in the minds of those who still retain their purse. Those who lost their salaries have blamed it on the prevailing pandemic. But when the virus was absent, a strange activism had prevailed across India, ensuring some of the largest businesses remained shut across the country, and some of the Indian companies working abroad drew flak.
So let’s take a quick look.
Work has stopped in the iron ore mines in Goa, one of Asia’s largest copper plants has shut down in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, troubles are brewing in iron ore mines in Chhattisgarh and Odisha and at the Adani group’s coal mines in the Down Under. Strangely, these have become disturbing symbols of the Indian industry.
All has come at a cost to the economy, imports have increased and exports taken a tumble.
At the heart of this are protests by a handful who have hopped, skipped and jumped from one protest to another, ensuring they generate the much needed steam to their movement. One movement has died, another risen like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes. These activists have routinely raised India’s big issue of land versus machines and cried wolf, smoking out everything else from the horizon. They are not worried about a lakh of miners going jobless and hungry for over two years in Goa. They do not care about 35,000 struggling without salaries in Thoothukudi, or, for that matter, Indian companies piling up huge non performing assets in the mines of Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand. Like Bengal’s ubiqutious Cholbey Na slogan in the 70s that killed industry in that eastern Indian state, these activists have continued their activism for a very long period.
What is surprising is their claim to fight for people’s rights when these rights are actually nowhere in sight. There is a common thread of people who are omnipresent in all these protests, their frustration seems both natural and common. They want the world to believe that India is burning, Indian companies are dubious, the world’s second most populous nation is in a revolutionary mood.
Last week, a Dubai-based activist campaigning against Adani’s coal mines in Australia, mistakenly revealed how he planned to scuttle Adani’s operations through an email that got leaked. In the email, the activist had apprised his friends in Australia about his plans to set up a website and create trouble for the Ahmedabad-based Indian conglomerate which runs business ranging from infrastructure to airports to ports to edible oil.
The activist’s Dubai to Australia connection to discredit an Indian company is interesting, especially at a time when jobs are at a premium and a closure would mean further catastrophe. The activist was seeking help from an anti-Adani group in Australia. Helping him were activists in India who have been in the forefront of the anti-Sterlite movement in Tamil Nadu, and against mining companies in Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Iron ore, coal and copper do not jell together but the broad idea was to add an Indian twist to build up a narrative of alleged wrongdoings in India and get it amplified in Australia. Or, for that matter, across the world. Recently, these activists raised another hue and cry over India’s coal mining and argued why it could not be substituted by solar or wind energy. Little did they realise that coal – under any circumstances – could not be replaced overnight, it still remains the best possible resource for energy in a billion plus nation. Conspiring activists are challenging the energy security of the country where per capita electricity consumption is just about 1200 units a year compared to China with four to five times higher numbers.
Those criticising India and its energy policies forget the developed nations have per capita electricity consumption is as high as 10000 to 20000 units. Little did they care that their misplaced activism could affect the Indian economy, disrupt growth opportunities & reduce scope of employment badly. They did not care that projecting one conglomerate with negativity would diminish another Indian conglomerate’s chance for inter-continental projects Indian companies are eyeing in a post-Covid situation. They seem to be keen on building an overall negative perception globally that Indian corporates care little for environment and human rights and also the rights of tribals and indigenous peoples. They do it knowing very well that their actions would help create an anti-Modi sentiment across the Indian borders.
What is interesting is that the majority of these protests are against large private firms and happening in a selective manner. For instance, Adani Group does not own any mine in India and it is a contractor for state owned mines. However, all energy and attention of so called activists is targeted to a contractor producing 15 million tonne a year for a state utility instead of the world’s largest coal mining firm, the Kolkata-based Coal India Limited (CIL) just because it is a public sector undertaking. The big race for breaking headlines in India often misses the real picture.
Surprisingly, none of these environmental activists ever hit the print industry that also claim millions of trees to produce newspapers. Worse, industries in India have often expressed their concerns over blackmailing by activists by misusing or manipulating media.
So let’s take a look at the protests against Adani. There is a peculiar pattern spotted in protests against the likes of Adani where Indian activist lobby is supporting protests in Australia, which is the world’s largest coal exporter with well over 25 percent market share. Indian activists have never expressed concerns against CIL or other Australian mining entities. Singling out one from a cluttered market creates suspicion. It would not be wrong to say interests of Australian activists started in Carmichael mine generated only after it was acquired by Adani from an Australian mining entity.
So why is this happening?
There is some deep-rooted economics of this activism. If there are Cola giants, they need to be linked to water crisis (never mind if the demand to ban the soft drink majors comes from faraway Norway), if there is iron ore or coal, the mining companies need to be blamed and if there are airports and ports, infrastructure giants need to be hauled over the coals. On paper, these activists lace their work with a tinge of environmental activism. It is all about some interesting twists and turns, it is about deferring current consumption for a better and secure tomorrow. They tell the world that if companies pollute rivers and cut forests for mining, the coming generations will get nothing on plate.
That is a great argument, a great platform for breaking news that is considered both dangerous and madness by many in South Asia. The world loves visuals of an impoverished tribal standing tall with his father’s machet against miners seeking to break the earth for iron ore, or coal. It is a great photograph of protest, students love to flaunt it to their parents, and friends. It is the best form of defence, there is no economics of scale involved.
But these self-styled mass movements for environmental causes actually come packaged without a reason. It is like asking the poor – who is at the rock bottom of the economic ladder – to kill industry and defer consumption. In most cases the poor back out, and these movements die a silent death.
A serious look at activism in India will show an interesting trend. Ever since the Supreme Court gave approval in October 2020 to the Sardar Sarovar Dam project in Gujarat, activists shifted their gears in favour of rights, ranging from land, homes, food, information and health. They did not care, did not realise that a nation’s resources are best saved when the government blends a lot of economics in its decisions and achieves a balance. They should have taken a lesson or two in economics from India’s lost decade (2004-14) before hyperventilating on corporate greed.
The need of the hour is to generate jobs, not protests. Activism must be laced with realism. Else, the jobless will spill out on the streets. And that would be dangerous for the nation, and its economy.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.