For a majority of poor Indians, survival directly depends on access to land, water and forest resources. Where communities have had long-term rights to these resources, they have often regulated their use to prevent over-exploitation and abuse, ensuring their own subsistence while conserving nature. However, this relationship between local people and their natural environment has been ruptured by government policies that extract resources for industrial and urban use. Accelerated exploitation has deprived village communities of their right to subsistence and has destroyed the natural base on which all life depends.
The government monopoly over the use and management of land, water and forests dates back to colonial times. It was only strengthened after Independence when ‘national development’ policies resulted in the government’s takeover of natural resources for industrial and commercial use. More than 30 million Indians were directly displaced as a result of this and millions more were forced into an impoverished and insecure existence.
In the 1990s, the Indian government adopted the strategy of economic liberalization, giving incentives to private investors and exporters in order to encourage economic growth and earn foreign exchange. This strategy has worsened conditions for living for the poor: agricultural land has been forcibly acquired for dams, mining, luxury housing on the urban periphery, Special Economic Zones, and other projects that bring few benefits to local communities. Water resources have been depleted by intensive farming and by diversion to high-consumption industries and well-off urban sections. Forested areas are either given away to industries or are declared as conservation areas from which local users are excluded.
SRUTI believes that solving this ecological and social crisis requires that local communities be recognized as the first claimants on natural resources. The rights of poor communities should be respected and their capacity to manage resources sustainably should be strengthened. Several SRUTI Fellows are engaged in campaigns to defend jal-jangal-zameen (water, forests, land) against destructive projects. Others have mobilized communities to stake a claim to resources that are rightfully theirs, using new laws like the Forest Rights Act. Still others are working with villagers to establish fair and sustainable ways of managing natural resources. These initiatives have shown that local control over natural resources is a key element in achieving socially just and ecologically stable development.