Investigating Infrastructure: Ecology, Sustainability and Society

Investigating Infrastructure: Ecology, Sustainability and Society

Photo: Abhishek Chauhan. All rights reserved.

India is building a future based on Infrastructure. A ‘wave’ of projects and investments are redefining India in myriad ways. Recognizably, these are pivotal to its growth story, foundational for rapid and inclusive development as well as achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Mega projects dot the country in between various stages of visioning and implementation and crucial to all these are infrastructure investments that are being sought. Fast paced efforts are in the earnest, and one challenge is to bridge investment deficits of projected USD 4.5 trillion and a postulated gap of USD 3.9 trillion in the next 25 years. The most visible manifestation of projects is in – roads, railways, ports and powerplants. The blueprints are massively ambitious, with the world’s largest Infrastructure project being built in India- the industrial corridor extending from Delhi to Mumbai is amongst many other ‘prestige projects’ like the Smart Cities and Bullet train.

Furthermore, regional politics and the ‘China factor’ heightens infrastructure related anxieties for India, as the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ programme ties up with both allies and adversaries in India’s neighborhood, triggering  security, connectivity and trade concerns. Correspondingly, alienation of India’s North-East and far flung places on the periphery is being corrected and the otherwise tardy pace of bridges, rail and road projects has picked pace.

However emerging are significant challenges and risks. Project potential and sustainability is in question. In the public debate are the extreme and unviable forms of infrastructure financing with a dependence on controversial models such as public-private partnerships.  Then, there is a critique of the enormous scale and the extreme ‘kind’ of capitalist production and consumption promoted by ‘big-infra’ as ‘race to the bottom’. The elitist top-down politics in the planning and governance of massive projects has been known to sideline democratic local processes. There is fear of regulatory dismantling and harmonization of policies and of technological ‘lock-ins’. Not in adequate focus, and thus increasingly given short shrift are land, livelihoods, environmental and social impacts. Local concerns over these now plague India’s infrastructure landscape resulting in project disruptions and disputes.

The Web dossier presents critical perspectives on India’s infrastructure development. It sums up the implications, associated risks and explores the contradictions and assumptions. Underlying the exploration is a cautionary note that highlights vulnerabilities of the structural agenda, placing it in the context of people and environment.  The web dossier is a step to inform the wider public on the economic and political, the human and non-human aspects of infrastructure interactions and the challenges related to them.


Historical injustice and “Bogus” claims: Large infrastructure, conservation and forest rights in India

This essay examines the role of India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act in the procedures that regulate transfer of forest land to large infrastructure projects. Specifically, it shows the gap between the legally mandated requirements and how these are implemented in project approval processes. This is illustrated through a case study of the coal mining approvals in the Hasdeo Arand forest region in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The essay also outlines the different actors who have influenced the discourses on forest rights of Adivasi and other forest dwelling communities and what they identify as factors that challenge the implementation of this law on the ground. It juxtaposes this analysis in the context of the recent decision of the Supreme Court of India on eviction of forest dwellers and examines whether that would bring in any structural change in the way the law is implemented.

By Kanchi Kohli

Infographic: Roads and bridges in Northeast India

Infrastructure projects in the North Eastern States of India are primarily carried out under the Non Lapsable Central Pool of Resource (NLCPR) scheme directly located under the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region. Objective of the scheme is to fill the gap in the infrastructure sector of the North East Region by sanctioning the projects prioritised through the respective state governments. The construction and maintenance of roads and bridges (apart from National Highways) too is sanctioned by the NLCPR scheme. By Ashish Khandalikar

‘Pickled’ infrastructure and connectivity: Locating community engagement in Northeast India’s infrastructural transformation

‘Pickled’ infrastructure/ connectivity/ roads is a metaphor that this article employs to understand the dynamics of connectivity and infrastructure development in Northeast India, in context of how local communities are able to use, absorb and participate in the decision making processes of such transformational physical change in the region. The hard external borders in Northeast India ensure that the existing roads built remain trapped within the nation-state container, without any meaningful opening up. The local communities remain trapped between the interplay of the past developmental lag of the region and the current development impetus led by the central government. The manner and method of connectivity and infrastructure development in the region brings additional layers of exclusion and conflict, reinforcing past sites, and connects new sites of accumulation politics and resource extraction within the nation-state container.

By Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman

Mahanadi: Looking beyond coal

Mahanadi, India's sixth largest river, is undergoing a storm at the moment. Major riparian states – Odisha and Chhattisgarh – have locked horns over sharing of water from this already decaying water resource that supports more than 40 million people. Fought under purview of the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, the prime focus is on sharing the remaining water in the river. However, real issues such as climate change, coal mining and thermal power plants that cause lot of stress for the river and distress for local riparian communities, may not be solved by this. This article tries to put such issues in perspective and suggests measures to ensure the right of the river to survive and stay healthy as well as to bring the local communities on board for proper management of the basin.

By Ranjan K Panda

Infrastructure development in the Northeast: Hydropower, natural resources, legal and institutional frameworks and compliance

In 2000, the central government declared Northeast India as India’s hydropower hub. Over 165 large dam projects were proposed to come up in the region. However, nearly two decades on, this proposal to regulate the region’s water resources for its development remains unimplemented. This article will look into the government hype and its failure to construct dam projects in the Northeast region. These projects are held as crucial to India’s energy and environmental security as well as the economic development of the country’s marginalised eastern borderlands.

By Manju Menon

Youth and infrastructure development in Northeast India

With their varied history and social location, the youth as a distinct socio-political category has historically played the role of effective agents of change in India’s Northeast region, both as channels of protests as well as participation. Implications of ‘infrastructure development’ in India’s Northeast, therefore, must be placed in the context of the unfolding ‘aspirations’ as well as the ‘lived realities’ of the region’s youth. How does the twin framework of security and ‘neo-liberal’ development operating in the region affects the youth’s engagement with the infrastructural interventions? How to connect the infrastructure debate to the phenomena of increasing outmigration of young people from the region, even when the ‘ethnic identity’ discourse remains significant?.

By Kaustubh Deka

Gendering infrastructure in Northeast India

In this essay, I offer a gender perspective on infrastructure in Northeast India. Policy documents, vision statements, and livelihood programmes, including various agencies and key actors, underline the significance of building or improving infrastructure in the region to transform lives of people. Understanding infrastructure as networks and matters that create the conditions for the movement of other matters, I highlight how the transformation of the region – from super highways, mining operations, cash crops, to new markets – has created new networks and social relations. Particularly, for the composition of households, family relations, and youth seeking employment, these developments are constitutive of the infrastructure boom in Northeast India and have created conditions that go beyond the material and physical functionality of the material objects such as roads, malls, and increased circulation of goods and people to and from the region.

By Dolly Kikon

India’s infrastructure push loses momentum

The ambitious infrastructure agenda of the government has run into multiple constraints. Projects have run into difficulties at inception, in the course of execution or after commissioning. The reasons for these difficulties are varied: Inability to acquire the required land due to farmer resistance, failure to obtain environmental clearances, cost overruns, disputes over pricing with consumers or regulatory agencies, and sheer non-viability of badly designed projects. Displacement and disputes over land acquisition and weak environmental regulation, shortfalls in compliance with prevalent laws, and poor monitoring and enforcement have plagued the infrastructure landscape.

By C.P. Chandrasekhar

For an alternative paradigm of development

Sustainable infrastructure is now an established buzzword in international policy making circles -  involving governments, private corporations and think tanks. There is almost no room in this discourse for asking fundamental questions about how growth is defined and whether the nature of growth should itself be redirected. How would the future of infrastructure look if we approach it from the perspective of 'sustainability' as degrowth – which means redirecting the economy and society towards actual well-being of all, Sarvodaya, rather than perpetual economic growth in terms of gross domestic product (GDP).

By Rajni Bakshi

China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its implications for India

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has completed five years and in that time it has expanded over Asia, Africa and Europe with increasing concerns about the transparency, economic feasibility and objectives of its projects. This paper looks at the key features of the BRI and the reactions from and implications for India. It suggests that the BRI is less about infrastructure development and more about promoting Chinese strategic interests - particularly its model of political development - in opposition to the United States and other regional powers and democracies like India.

By Jabin T. Jacob