It all began, as these things often do, with a small event in the long tradition of social movements in India. I remember clearly now the little item in January of 1989, on the eighth page of The Times of India. Six hundred villagers had marched to the office of the district collector and had staged a sit-in. This was the 21st day of a determined attempt to stop the state government from leasing land that had been used by villagers for generations. The land was to be developed by a Japanese corporation into a golf course. What attracted the newspaper’s interest was not the tenacity of the community but the fact that on the previous day representatives of 40 groups from all over the country, including a few urban lawyers and academics, had traveled to the district town to express solidarity with the villagers.
During the long hours of being together, the people of the various communities had a chance to compare notes and look at their common problems. The outcome was a decision to bring together initiatives dispersed across the country that had evolved in response to the continuous "invasion" by national and international economic and political actors in their communities and their societies.
The Primary Contentions
These events grew out of the grassroots mobilization that had evolved in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the country’s rural areas. This mobilization was partly stimulated by three contentious realities:
1. Overwhelming evidence that the dominant strategies of economic development are incompatible with the goals of justice and create widespread unemployment and displacement, social and cultural disintegration, and greater impoverishment.
More than 4000 citizen’s groups openly challenged the United Nations and the global economic institutions to prove – even in one country in the Third World – that dominant economic strategies were capable of enhancing social justice and ecological sustainability without colonizing some part of the world and without transforming patterns of consumption. The challenge went unanswered.
2. Growing tensions between dominant and subjugated identities, including the penetration of technological and educational processes like Star TV over which local communities had no control.
3. Continuing loss of access and control over natural resources.
The villagers and their supporters also decided these contentions required a response at a national level. And so, on December 25, 1990, more than 400 representatives of nearly 100 movements and groups, converged in India’s capital, Delhi, to assert before the nation a new determination to struggle for greater autonomy in their social and economic lives.
The movement that grew out of this differed from previous mass movements in its lack of emphasis on taking over the state. Whilst challenging the very nature of economic development itself, the movement was no longer pressing for a greater share in the pie of national development, but for greater control over the productive natural resources that were the basis of people’s lives.
What emerged from some of the discussions was the need to define new institutions at the local, national, and global levels (and the inter- and intra-level relationships between them) that would ensure social justice and ecological sustainability. Political space was no longer the exclusive domain of the state and powerful economic actors. A range of new institutional innovations in civil society and at the community levels began to take place.
Much of this was not easy. The forces of economic integration and local power groups were becoming more and more frustrated and were employing more sophisticated strategies to co-opt and suppress the flowering of self-conscious and confident local struggles. Incidents of violence occurred when these interests responded to losing their power by arming and mobilizing themselves. Innovative mechanisms were formed that involved the state in a multi-party non-partisan committee. In most cases, dialogues were initiated with mediators to resolve the conflicts.
Ecosystemic Planning was widely recognized as the only option if the country was to resist recolonization, support over a billion people sustainably, and protect and nurture its biodiversity for present and future generations. In the absence of this recognition, it was pointed out that at least 300 million people were being consigned to a life of destitution and social violence. It was also acknowledged – after much contention and numerous consultations – that communities have to play a central role in preserving and defending India’s natural heritage.
Groups sat down with representatives of rural communities and urban ecologists to define eco-regions and bioregions and draw up a plan to recover and regenerate degraded systems. Sub-regional, regional, and national consultations helped in crystallizing a broad plan for an ecosystemic alternative.
By 2005, the scale and pace of activities had reached proportions that were difficult to monitor. Everywhere, reports were coming in of local efforts establishing "village republics," and of their work to link together both horizontally and vertically. Increasingly, collective forums were addressing the need to strengthen the co-existence of diverse cultures and knowledge systems as the basis for a vibrant democracy.
Transcending National Boundaries
Increasingly, there were efforts to link across national boundaries – not only to seek accountability of international institutions, but also to build global countervailing power. Horizontal alliances between countries of the Third World were deepened, and by 2007, more and more groups in the industrialized world, in pursuit of global social and ecological justice, were participating in alliances with movement groups in the less-industrialized world. These alliances transcended economics and the narrow agendas of the ruling classes. For the first time in human history, a diverse range of actors were participating in the massive task of regional and global institution building that respected cultural and ecological pluralism.
Numerous problems still remain. Internally, fundamentalists and chauvinists are still seeking to expand their severely restricted space. Externally, ethnic, religious and economic forces continue to impose their designs on the vast creativity in India. They are so far being held back by a democratic state that has been mandated to control predatory capital and mediate impartially in domestic conflicts.
The movement is emboldened by a remarkable web of people-nations that have restricted the government’s capacity to be swayed by centralizing and unegalitarian interests. Yet, many issues continued to pose far more difficult challenges than had been anticipated. For instance, the task of reorganizing national markets and the global marketplace, and the enforcement of environmental laws.
And yet, so much has changed so dramatically. Everywhere there is an outpouring of celebration. There has never been so much dancing and singing on the streets and footpaths and village commons …
The efforts towards establishing a socially and ecologically just society would not have been possible without parallel developments in the region, particularly in Pakistan, as well as a significant restructuring in global institutions and corporations. Often, the odds were staggering. At times there was so much violence, so many precious lives lost. But, as never before, we are emboldened. We have endured. So onwards in the journey …
Smitu Kothari is one of India’s leading activists working toward a non-party people’s political movement for just, sustainable, and inclusive development in the country. He is editor of Lokayan Bulletin (Dialogue of the People).