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Post-protest: Challenges of building local economy

March 02, 2011 17:43 IST
Farmers who opposed the Special Economic Zone at Raigad seem to have won, for now.

In mid-February the Government of Maharashtra announced that it would return, to farmers, land that had been marked for inclusion in a project that was to stretch over 35,000 acres.

Within days the promoters of this project, Reliance Industries and Jai Corporation, announced that they would go ahead with the project on the 4,500 acres already in their possession.

At the same time, groups of farmers declared that they would intensify their opposition to seven other SEZs that are reportedly being planned on fertile lands in Mahatrashtra.

Here is yet another stand-off which seems like a conflict between competing interest groups.

In the case of Vedanta and Posco, in Orissa, it is environment and tribals vs. industry and growth.

In Raigad and at other SEZ locations it is farmers vs. an enclosure of special industrial infrastructure.

What is really at stake is the future of the local economy and its place in the larger picture.

Oddly enough this dimension tends to remain out of focus in the larger dispute over growth vs. social and environmental disruption.

This is partly because much of the political mobilisation at the grass-roots seems to have an 'anti' agenda - such as against forced land acquisition, or against damage to water sources or against loss of livelihoods.

At least this is how it appears in most media reports.

Yet underlying this unrest are deep anxieties about the status of the local economy and the need to infuse it with more dynamism.

Since the opposition to SEZs has partly been organised by the Forum Against Globalization it has at times been portrayed as being somewhat parochial and out of step with global economic realities.

Not at all, says Ulka Mahajan convener of the Forum Against Globalization: "What we seek is not an isolating localisation but being connected more fruitfully with the national economy."

In essence this is a wish to see the local economy interact with the national and international economy from a position of strength instead of subservience and dependence.

This aspiration has been diversely expressed both within India and in other parts of the world.

Hundreds of NGOs have worked for panchayat level planning to ensure optimum use of local resources and generation of village crafts and other forms of livelihood generation.

Clearly this is not enough since most such activities have remained limited to a small geographical area and relatively small numbers of people, in relation to the millions who need full employment.

Then there are over-arching efforts in the NGO sector such as the Livelihood Freedom Campaign mobilised by the Centre for Civil Society.

Activities of this campaign include lobbying, at the level of central and state governments, in favour of street vendors and other micro entrepreneurs.

A petition drafted by this campaign asks for: a) removal of all licenses and restrictions on entry-level professions; b) respect the property rights of street entrepreneurs to their means of livelihood and merchandise and c) decentralise the management of public space by creating ward-level governing committees.

Fair trade organisations have been attempting to boost linkages between producers of commodities, such as tea, coffee, cotton, rice - in different parts of the world - so that they get better terms of trade, which in turn infuses their local economy with more capital and dynamism.

In the United Kingdom, the New Economics Foundation has worked consistently to emphasis the "local multiplier effect".

This refers to the extent to which a single unit of currency circulates within the local economy before it leaves the area to enter the coffers of big business.

Interestingly enough this is an issue with which most of the micro-finance sector has failed to engage.

The emphasis has been on increasing purchasing power and/or micro-productive capacity but not on mapping how the surpluses settle or flow out of the local economy.

But how is "local" to be defined? There is no one or fixed answer to this question. But most proponents of local economy revival tend to visualise it in a layered manner - from a single village unit to clusters of villages or small urban centres and even a region.

In the international sphere, interest in local economy is closely linked to the green politics of "think globally, act locally".

Michael Shuman, an American local economy theorist, has posited local economy as the tension between the 'TINA' doctrine and 'LOIS'.

TINA refers to the mindset that There Is No Alternative to a kind of globalisation driven by global capital.

LOIS refers to Locally Owned Import Substitution, anchored partly in community owned companies.

In the last decade the US has also witnessed the rise of the American Independent Business Alliance, as "a coalition of locally-owned independent businesses, citizens and community organisations united to support home town businesses in a community or geographic region".

The challenge for movements like the one in Raigad against the SEZ is that it is much easier to oppose something and relatively harder to mobilise support for what is needed on the ground.

Activists of the Forum Against Globalization have just spent three days in a workshop where they resolved to work on the 'what we want' agenda.

An essential element of their wishlist is a boost to micro, small and medium enterprises - or at the very least no disadvantaging of these sectors by policies designed to boost the interests of big business.

As this Forum has repeatedly pointed out, the lands, which were to have been taken into the SEZ, are extraordinarily fertile.

So their emphasis now will be on boosting agriculture in areas that will lead to agro-industries of the kind that increase local livelihoods.

Above all, says Ulka Mahajan, they are encouraged by the intensity of interest displayed by young people in colleges across Maharashtra.

Over the last three years, Mahajan was invited by students in scores of colleges who wanted to understand the struggle between promoters of the SEZ and the local people.

But this raw interest could easily evaporate.

As Mahajan says, the challenge now is to shift gears from protest to constructive actions, which create spaces in which young people both within Raigad and from outside can engage in imbuing the local economy with dynamism and strength.

Rajni Bakshi