In the last few years, especially after the enactment of the SEZ policy, struggles by rural masses have increased in number and in intensity. There have been some significant successes for the rural communities in protecting their rights against powerful corporate interests, but a vast majority of the struggles end with the corporates flashing the V sign.
The following events took place in Kutch, the haven of traditional fisher people and salt farmers, the Kutch coast line is characterized by rich mangrove ecosystem, wide inter-tidal zone, and numerous creeks and canals. Over the last five years, the Kutch coast has been witnessing a massive industrialization drive. This, along with the ensuing urbanization is fast changing the environmental and livelihood landscape of the coast.
As an outsider looking at the struggles by various local communities in Kutch against corporate interests, it seemed as though the local communities were up against an insurmountable opposition, which had the best professionals, lawyers, even former IAS officers at their service. The struggle by local communities reminds one of the Lagaan team up against the experienced British players.
However, with a little professional support and use of technology, the local communities can get a level playing ground in their struggle. Blogs, Social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter), Google Earth, slideshow software, access to Government websites through internet can be extremely useful tools for the local communities.
My first experience of using technology for a people’s movement was in the struggle by traditional coastal communities (fishworkers, saltpan workers, farmers and pastoralists) against OPG power plant in Bhadreshwar, Kutch. The power plant was trying to get environmental clearance and as part of the process had to publish the project details and conduct a public hearing. The project details (Environment Impact Assessment Reports) are voluminous 200-300 page technical reports prepared by environmental engineers hired by the company and these reports are made public and comments are sought on the day of the public hearing.
As per rules, these reports are supposed to be available in the local Govt. offices, a month before the public hearing but in practice they are rarely accessible .On the other hand these can be easily downloaded from the State Pollution control board website. Since the local communities might not be able to comprehend the technical reports which are in English, executive summaries of the reports are published in English as well as in Gujarati, the local language.
As one might expect, the EIA reports state that the overall environmental impact of the project is negligible and speak about the benefits in terms of the employment generation etc. It is difficult for local communities to refute the claims made in the EIA reports as the loop holes are well hidden and invisible to the untrained eye. However, OPG’s report had glaring errors which the layman could understand. For instance, the report claimed that there is no habitation within 5 km of the power plant, whereas the land purchased by the company was only 1.5 km from Bhadreshwar village. Also, the latitude-longitude shown in the report showed the power plant 5 km away from Bhadreshwar village, right on top of the fishing settlement, Randh Bander, which is the second largest fishing settlement in Kutch. However, the report made no mention whatsoever of the fishing settlement.
These details might have gone unnoticed; however, the use of Google Earth to verify the project location and the comparison with the statements made in the report exposed the false nature of the report. It was perhaps a case of “ sleight of hand” gone too far that shocked even the expert committee when the local communities explained the issues to them using slide-show software.
The public hearing of the OPG power plant, held on May 29th, 2009, witnessed unprecedented opposition by the local communities and people raised their issues with so much conviction that the company representatives mostly kept mum unable to provide answers through out the public hearing. It didn’t matter that the company officials had prestigious degrees against their names. With a little technological help, the local communities had the company officials running for cover. In a Gandhian gesture, the people refused to touch food and water provided by the company during the public hearing. The deserted food stalls that day were the symbol of the unity of the masses.
The second time when Google Earth came handy was during a study to understand the issues faced by traditional communities along the Kutch coast. We tried to use Google Earth for the study. Carrying a laptop into the villages, we used to sit with a few people and start a general discussion and explain our objectives as the laptop was switching on. At some point in the discussion, we would show the Google Earth image of the village and surrounding areas and wait for the villagers to get a hang of the images. They would first identify a nearby stream or a dam and then try to identify their houses. Then, with lot of excitement, the discussion would pick up and lot of insights would emerge.
Rural research is usually done using methods like interviews, questionnaires and group discussions with the villagers. In a method popularly known as Participatory Rural Appraisal, locally available materials such as stones, twigs, chalks are used to draw maps and diagrams with the participation of the local communities. These techniques are meant to provide the villager an opportunity to express his/her views to the outside world. Tools like Google Earth can be used to complement the existing Rural research techniques and create a common platform for communication among local communities, experts and outsiders.
Technology can be very useful in mobilizing support for struggles through mass communication. While many sections of news media are sympathetic to the cause of the affected villagers, it is often desirable to have mass communication options such as blogs, social networking sites etc. In the case of the Kutch struggle, a blog http://masskutch.blogspot.com has been providing information and updates for the past one year or so. The blog complements the mainstream media in providing complete details, amplifying the media publicity by spreading the word among sympathizers, thereby creating a ripple effect – friends spreading the word among their friends and so on..
The above tools are available free of cost and can be handled even by a non-techie. With advanced technical support (such as GIS software) a lot of possibilities emerge. In these days, when courts have started accepting Google Earth images as evidence, satellite imageries can provide clinching evidence in many cases especially those involving (mis)use of natural resources and commons. To give an example, for over a decade, the Adani group had been rubbishing allegations of large scale destruction of mangroves and illegal construction in the Mundra coast. But with photographs and satellite images showing the extent of the environmental destruction, there is solid evidence of the violations and perhaps for the first time, activists and local communities have the confidence that no matter who represents the Adanis in court, be it the top-most lawyer in the country or the spokesperson of a powerful political party, the case can be won on its merits.
Technology is advancing at a rapid pace. The more advanced the technology becomes, the simpler it gets. The mobile revolution has already started to change the information landscape and shifting it in favor of rural communities. This trend, along with policies such as the RTI Act is very encouraging for the rural masses because in the future everyone, be it a top executive in a MNC or a fisherman living on the beach will have equal access to information and struggles in the future will be fought on a level playing ground.
Parthasarathy.T – Rural Management Professional