Here is a spirited riposte to the cloyingly smooth and dangerously apathetic tales that are told about big business and its commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Sudeep Chakravarti rips apart the shibboleth of lies that surrounds the actual reality regarding flashpoints such as Vedanta, Tata Steel, Posco and Kudankulam, and this surely is highly valuable reportage with strong analytical inputs. The manner in which Kalinga Nagar and Niyamgiri Hills have become the metaphor of our distressingly myopic times has been effectively brought out in this riveting narrative.
It is also about how local communities and stakeholders are being taken for a ride in the name of development, which can be illustrated by one fact: Almost exactly a year ago, on the same day that the last of 12 villages voted Vedanta out of Niyamgiri for good, the multinational announced a huge CSR and pr campaign called ‘Our Girls, Our Pride.’ The farcical nature of this sham campaign is there for all to see, in spite of Vedanta roping in cine-star Priyanka Chopra to be the brand ambassador of the project, which has NDTV as its partner. The village councils may have had their say, but the truth of the matter is that with the Odisha government displaying what Chakravarti calls a “remorseless strategy to use every aspect of government, from local administration to local police, as an expression of corporate will”, the tribals can do precious little except hope that the tooclever- by-half conglomerate plays it by the rules. But there is little likelihood of that happening, because here as also at the other flashpoints, there is an alarming degree of bonhomie between governments and the corporates in the ‘conflict zones’.
Chakravarti offers a close critique of how disaffection was inevitable given the consolidation of vested interests thwarting local communities in the name of development. From land acquisition to resettlement and rehabilitation, the project-affected communities have been shortchanged all through, with the result that the prospect of growth has gone for a six and the cost of businesses have increased because too many opportunities have been lost and delays and liabilities have mounted. The book details how V Kishore Chandra Deo, the UPA’s “combative and conscience-driven” minister for tribal affairs, was in for a rude shock when all his pleas for following constitutional safeguards for the Scheduled Tribes were forgotten in the anxiety to appease the conglomerates.
In a devastatingly written chapter, which talks of how “a few farmers meet the face of a corporation” in Charkudih and how distrust and resentment grew in the region where “the language of land acquisition has spawned a free market vocabulary”, Sudeep puts his best foot forward. The reasoning is precise and the arguments have a sharp cutting edge, which make nonsense of the tall claims made by the likes of Adi Godrej. The manner in which the acknowledged captain of industry roots for land acquisition shows how the rights of those who were dispossessed were neatly sidestepped, and all this happened in the name of ensuring livelihood for those ousted!
Another theatre of conflict between vested interests, chiefly the State itself, and determined locals is Kudankulam, where the residents show the author a broken statue of Mary at a local church to symbolically highlight how the Idinthakarai skyline has changed forever. Locals, apart from being shocked in several other fundamental ways, had the added mortification of having their precious idols being desecrated and properties damaged. Neither the state nor the Central government thought it worthwhile to talk to the affected community, which inflamed passions even further. Nameless people of small means suddenly became fugitives from the law as the locals devised ingenuous ways to keep the protests going even after their key leaders were captured.
Accusations of foreign NGOs funding the agitation against the nuclear plant gained currency in a largely uncritical and uncaring media. Amid all this, claims and counterclaims about safety have continued in a manner that is intelligible only to the initiated and the scientists. The affected people have thus been effectively blocked from all ends, and the role of State power comes for scathing criticism. The Tatas, the Jindals and the Godrejs may appear unstoppable, but they need not be too clever about CSR anymore.