This is a piece I wrote for Tehelka recently. I wasn't thrilled with the way it was edited, so here's the 'original' version. The idea is a bloody brilliant one, mind you - GEZ away, say I...
The much-bandied and obscurantised term ‘development’ has never been an innocent one. In its wake has followed displacement and disinheritance, especially when it has come to be regarded as separate from and inorganic to the cultures of the lands it purports to ‘change’.
As a response to what they perceive as the brutality inherent to the highly popular ‘Special Economic Zone’ model, which has for its basis crass economic commercialisation, the Adivasi communities of Gujarat have formulated a novel counterpoint; an idea they call the ‘Green Economic Zone’, shortened to ‘GEZ’, which, since it sounds like ‘gaze’, is a play on the idea that they have a clear vision for the future.
“Any form of development which does not have for its foundation the concepts of sustainability, ecological sensitivity and an ingrained understanding of the cultural roots of a people is genocidal by definition,” says well-known tribal activist, author, literary critic and founder-director of the seminal Adivasi Academy at Tejgarh, Dr Ganesh Devy. It is to address these ‘wants’ in the SEZ model that the Adivasis are proposing GEZ in its stead.
It has been almost a decade now since Adivasis in 1200 villages across the south and south-eastern belt of Gujarat started working “quietly, but purposively”, as Dr Devy puts it, to create a massive network of micro-credit federations. “Similarly they have been setting up their own food-grain banks, water harvesting cooperatives, organic agriculture practices, and have set up and run informal centres of learning. All this work began when a group of young Adivasis met at Tejgarh in 2000 and resolved to make their villages free of hunger, indebtedness, exploitation arising out of illiteracy, and migration arising out of helplessness,” he explains.
This team of dedicated ‘karyakartas’ has now decided to create several Green Economic Zones, eventually covering some 2200 villages which fall between the Tapti river in the south and the Mahi in the north, with the Narmada flowing in between. What is striking about the GEZs is that, unlike their namesakes, they seek to court neither foreign investment nor exploit natural resources. “We have, over the years, collected the seed capital we need to launch this initiative, and since the idea is to respect and integrate local custom and resource at every step of the way and create 100% employment for the people who live and work in these GEZs, it would be against our credo to treat the issue of investment otherwise,” says Dr Devy.
This massive initiative was launched at the Academy in Tejgarh on June 5th, from where the assembled group of community workers, students and faculty of the Adivasi Academy, joined in their efforts by human rights activists, villagers, educationists, writers, theatre artists and other ‘green-development’ sympathisers from all walks of life started on a week long march over the course of which they covered some 175+ villages, spread over an area of 3000 sq. kms, spanning the region between Tejgarh and Vedchi, Rajpipla and Vankoda, Naroda and Rangpur. This march, lasting from June 5-12, was named the “Vivekshil Vikas Mate No Pravas” (A march for judicious or wise and ‘sound’ development). Including all those who joined the Pravas at various stages, the group numbered around 1800 people, a number culled from across the country and abroad.
At each stop along the route, the volunteer workers were split into teams which covered the given district on foot, engaging the villagers, Sarpanches and local Panchayats in discussion, every step of the way. After initiating them into the ideas behind the GEZ philosophy and how it would translate into employment and uplift for their communities, the teams would then rendezvous late in the evening and go over the day’s developments, sifting through the information gathered and enlisting people for the execution of the tasks ahead.
The atmosphere at the academy in Tejgarh on June 5, before the march began, was electric to say the least. The morning was spent going over the entire idea’s raison d’être – the whys wherefores and burgeoning necessity for GEZ to find room in the popular imagination. The day began on a high-note as the Sarpanch of Tejgarh came forward to pledge that the country’s first GEZ would be established in and around his village, quickly followed by news that Palia would follow suite; and this even before the Pravas had officially begun. At the end of this initiative, the number stands at 129 villages. They have each now signed a declaration saying that they would like to have Green Zones created in their villages.
Present as key-speakers on the occasion were, among others, Mahasweta Devi, the venerable doyenne of Indian letters and social activism, who said, “All my life I have searched for the ‘genuine’; that sentiment of selfless service which manifests itself in only a handful. In Ganesh and the people at the Adivasi Academy, I stand vindicated. We are at a crossroads in space and time – there is anticipation in the air; it is as if we know that something big is either about to pass or give way disastrously. This is history in the making. West Bengal needs the GEZ idea as much as, if not more than, Gujarat does – you are all familiar with what has happened in Singur and Nandigram. These are the outcomes of a world which has lost sight of what is truly important. Seize this moment and win the day.” With these rousing words, containing all the sonority of a battle-cry, Mahasweta Devi addressed the assembled karyakartas, just before they set forth on what could perhaps, given time, prove to be the veritable turning-point in the history of ‘development’. The moment when a people long dispossessed set out to reclaim their world, and in so doing gave it a new lease on life.