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Development Projects, Environment And Resistance

In common parlance, development connotes change for betterment and advancement. Also the term conveys a sense of optimism and expectation of progress, and of a general improvement in the living condition of people. Manifestations of development are multi-faceted and diverse. It may include advancement in medicine, education, culture, sports and of course economic well being. Notwithstanding the emerging discourses on post-structuralism or post-Marxism, the contemporary scene is characterized by the continuing imposition of an orthodox Western vision of development for the non-West, most glaringly reflected in the contested and controversial notions of structural adjustment, deregulation of the economy, privatization, and good governance. But this concept of development orchestrated by Western will is now facing a stiff challenge, and within a newer current, development tout court has been rejected outright by a vast majority of indigenous scholars and native political scientists as lingering legacy of unacceptable western practices devised systematically for subordination of the Third World.

This rejection of the western concepts of development is rooted in and founded on the experiences during the colonial period. Basically, the western concepts envisioned and endorsed the West as the model of development, civilization, rationality and progress. In the process of the race for imperialism, these ideas were bestowed with universal relevance through colonial agents. By the mid 19th century, a notion gained firm ground that the American Anglo-Saxons were a separate and innately superior people who were ‘˜destined’ to bring good government, better governance, commercial prosperity and Christianity to the American continents and the whole world.

Berger, MT wrote in Civilizing the South: the US Rise to Hegemony in the Americas and the Roots of Latin American Studies. (Bulletin of Latin American Research)

‘Furthermore, throughout the nineteenth century, Anglo-Saxon assumptions about US civilization being the highest form of civilization in history took firm roots, as US attitudes toward other nations and inhabitants came also to be increasingly based on a well-defined racial hierarchy’.

This concept of racial hierarchy and the idea of a modernizing, developmental, civilizing project consciously and systematically associated with imperialism to legitimize colonization of Asian, African and Latin American countries was challenged strongly by 1917, and the birth of what came to be viewed as the ‘˜Communist threat’ to Western freedom and civilization. This heralded the rise of national liberation movements; of course with the open support of Soviet Russia, and with it, native people (of colonized nations) started sharply scrutinizing the western concepts of modernization and civilizational progress. Soon, the proud claim of benevolence bestowed upon native societies by western imperialists vis-a-vis economic development came under sharp criticism with the exposure of economic exploitation of the colonized people.

Nevertheless, the western concept of (economic) development was pre-dominant and was ironically adopted by most of the newly independent countries whose leaders, hitherto, denounced the same model as exploitative and imposition of the western hegemony. Interestingly again, the Modernization Theory which came into prominence during the 1950s and 1960s has its roots in the academic citadels of the West. But the modernization theory was actually a ‘˜modernized’ version of the colonial- era western concepts of development and progress.

In the words of David Slatter, ‘modernization theory was basically constructed around three inter-related components; an uncritical vision of the West, largely based on a selective reading of the history of the United States and Britain; a perspective on the non-West or traditional societies that ignored their own histories and measured their innate value in terms of their level of westernization; and an interpretation of the West–non-West encounter which was based on the governing assumption that the non-West could only progress, become developed, throw off its backwardness and traditions, by embracing relations with the West.’

The misplaced notion of the universal applicability of the modernization theory was exposed not by communist movement, and then spearheaded by Soviet Union but by the rise of social protest movement within the United States itself. In fact, universal applicability of the modernization theory was shattered by the rise of radical nationalist movements in the Third World, the protracted Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the growth of social protest movements. In addition to the military and political implications, the Vietnam War had economic implications too. In one sense, it was outright rejection of the western or American model of economic development through the application of modernization theory. The protagonists of modernization theory disastrously failed in grasping the heterogeneity and complexity of the developing world before they embarked on preaching the theory around the planet.

In contrast to expectations of the modernization process dictated by the western model, the so called development projects have caused widespread environmental damage, resource exhaustion, and disrupted or destroyed the cultures and economies of numerous traditional and tribal communities. Adoption or rather enforcement of the western-defined development project only facilitated industrialization of the West at the expense of the Third World countries. It expedited integration of the economies of Third World countries into a world economy dominated by the industrial centers in the West placing them in a dependent relationship to the West that has continued, albeit in different forms, since decolonization. The green revolution which emerged in the 1960s as a development strategy for improving food production also aggravated developing world’s dependence upon the West in many ways.  First, the developing countries were dependent upon foreign banks, which provided the necessary credit to purchase the expensive inputs. Secondly, the project supplanted traditional agriculture practices with Western methods, which required the intervention of Western professionals and institutions. Thirdly, the project made agriculture dependent upon industrial outputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, expert advice, credit etc, thus subordinating agriculture to the requirements of industrial growth.

This has evoked strong voices of dissent and sometimes violent protest movements. In response to this assault, social movements have emerged across the planet to pose challenges and alternatives to the process of development. Social resistance movements that evolved over the past three/four decades in different parts of the planet seek to address comprehensively the crises of ecology (e.g. struggles to prevent deforestation and pollution), economy (e.g. struggles to preserve indigenous local resources and/or secure urban housing), culture (e.g. struggles to protect the integrity of indigenous people), and politics (struggles for increased local autonomy and greater control over the local resources).   These resistance social movements involve a multiplicity of groups like local community groups, human rights organizations, women’s associations, indigenous rights groups, tribal bodies, student bodies and of course environmental activists. Although most of these resistance movements are non-violent in nature, 73 members of the National Association of Indian People of El Salvador (ANIS), who were involved in struggles for economic rights, were assassinated by the military in 1983.

As witnessed in Manipur as elsewhere, larger section of these resistance movements is located within the realm of civil society and, not surprisingly, it is civil society organizations which are spearheading the movements. They are neither part of the processes of material production in the economy nor part of state-funded organizations. A deeper analysis of the activities of these civil society organizations will reveal that they are consistently attempting to articulate alternatives to the political process, political parties and the State. Perhaps, that is why, none of the political parties including opposition parties bothered to take up the cause of any of the many environmentally disastrous projects being planned by the Government.

One social movement which successfully combined the strategies of resistance and articulation of alternatives to development was the Chipko Movement. The Chipko movement was a peasant movement that emerged in 1972 in response to the effects that ecological destruction (especially deforestation) had had upon the local culture and economy in the Garhwal Himalaya region of Uttar Pradesh. Resistance was articulated through a variety of non-violent methods including hugging trees to prevent them from being cut down, demonstrations and uprooting of eucalyptus saplings in social forestry plantations. The movement took its name from the Hindi word chipko which means to hug or hugging.

As a result of this movement, the Government of India granted some concessions and certain state forestry practices were reformed. What is rather disheartening in the context of Manipur is the failure of vigilant civil society organizations and environmental activists to mobilize people for a sustained movement like the Chipko Movement or the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Again, despite the glaring negative impacts of Loktak Hydroelectric Project on environment and ecology, our scholars, academicians and civil organizations are unable to articulate an alternative vision, if not a model. This is understandable given the prevailing situation which demands constant engagement of civil society organizations in human rights and other more pressing, immediate issues. But by ignoring development issues vis-a-vis environment, we are only forsaking our own environment in the name of West-defined and State-sponsored development projects. Who cares?

*The article is written by Yenning.

*The writer can be reached at

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(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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