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AS a new year gift, the Supreme Court’s final order to shift out ‘polluting and non-conforming’ factories from the precints of Delhi is quite unparalleled. On a conservative estimate, close to a million people will be affected, adversely. And while no one can seriously defend the existence of polluting and hazardous enterprises in what were once residential areas, the insensitivity to job losses in an economy marked by high unemployment is decidedly troubling.

Not that this legal dispute is new; the Court had passed initial orders in 1996. Characteristically, the administration slept. True, some land in the rural outskirts was acquired and earmarked for relocation. But, neither was a proper survey of ‘offending’ units carried out, nor were the new sites ‘readied’ to accommodate the potential incumbents. And while the fear of contempt proceedings against key officials ‘forced’ the government to close down the factories, no such threat was issued to ensure the preparation of new locations.

Equally, no one bothered to consult, far less take consent of, those whose land was being acquired. It, after all, was for public interest! Forget whether the compensation was fair. Evidently, taking over good farmland without a ‘by your leave’ and dump polluting industry in the villagers’ backyards is acceptable. Those who argue that strict pollution control will be enforced in the new locations may like to ask why this was impossible where the units currently are. Is it surprising that many believe that for the honourable judges their own backyards are more important, social dislocation be dammed. And to foreclose discussion, the Court has ordered that no ‘stays’ by any other bench can be entertained.

The current directive comes close on the heels of the equally ‘contentious’ ruling lifting the stay on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam. And the judgement favouring the luxury hotel industry in Goa in violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Act. Is it, as a recent article in the EPW points out, that our highest Court takes one position on ‘green’ issues – foregrounding nature over jobs and output – but veers the other way when the conflict involves big business, more so foreign capital? So in Maharashtra, the ruling is in favour of Enron and in Goa the large hoteliers, but in Delhi the concern is for the health of the populace.

These recent judgements demand detailed scrutiny because very soon we are likely to face the consequences of a concerted move to redefine the relationship between natural resources, the state and the people. On the anvil is a revised Land Acquisition Act designed to permit the state to take over land for private industry. Similar efforts are underway to amend the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, legally allowing the state to acquire land, ostensibly for public purposes (read mines and industry) in tribal areas. Existing law bars non-tribals from enjoying property rights in scheduled areas and the Court has held the Indian state to be non-tribal.

To dilute the CRZ Act, so far overseen by the Ministry of Environment, the proposal is to bring in a new Aquaculture Bill under the Ministry of Rural Development. Evidently, commercial prawn cultivation is now big business. The fact that it has ruined paddy cultivation in coastal areas, or intensified the process of salinity ingress is considered unimportant. Worse, our government proposes to raise a new para-military force to protect national parks and sanctuaries, one presumes from small time graziers, wood poachers and residents in the neighbourhood. Finally on the anvil is the new Biodiversity Bill.

Taken together these different moves represent a major assault on the current regimen governing natural resources and their use. As against the plea that these resources be under the trusteeship of local communities, the effort is to either privatise them or hold the state as the eventual owner. On the chopping block are all those communities – tribals, nomads, graziers, fisherfolk – whose home and livelihood is intrinsically tied to the commons. These communities are our most marginalised citizens, least enmeshed in the global capitalist order. They also happen to occupy the last unconquered frontier with its riches of forests, minerals and water.

As invariably happens, these issues will at some stage land up in the portals of the Supreme Court. But does this hallowed institution represent a level ground for adjudicating on matters social and political, or for deciding policy matters? The recent judgements inspire little confidence. Clearly the winter will be long, dark and deep.

Harsh Sethi