Ecological Rift and Alienation: Field notes from Goa and Sikkim

Goa and Sikkim, two of the smallest states in India by area, are also places that have some of the richest plant and animal biodiversity, with Goa nestled between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, and Sikkim being a part of the eastern Himalayas. Incidentally, their natural beauty also makes them ideal tourist destinations. Currently, Goa is about to see a resumption in mining activities, mining fields that were left abandoned for a decade will open up soon, and places like Mollem (an ecological hotspot) will be dug up in the name of “development projects” (Datta 2022). The mountains of Sikkim and North Bengal too are being dug up for the Sivok-Rangpo railway project, with plans of extending it to Gangtok at a second phase later on.  In this paper, I explore the Marxist ecological tradition and the metabolic rift through primary field evidence from Goa, and parts of North Bengal and Sikkim. I present the observations from field visits to these places followed by an analysis of observations from the Marxian ecologist perspective, foregrounding the idea of ecological rift and alienation as discussed by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York and Fred Magdoff.

In a village called Maina in South Goa, villagers who once had freshwater springs flowing before their homes now store water in large blue drums all year round. Located near Sanvordem, the South Goa mining capital, the soil beneath Maina is rich in iron-ore, and was the site of extreme mining activity from 2008-11, during what was the Age of Greed (de Souza 2015). Hills were dug up and aquifers blasted to obtain mud and iron which then made their way to China and Japan. With the local aquifers and springs gone, the hills now echo when villagers cry out ujanu (no water) in the height of monsoons.

 

Nearly 150 since Karl Marx predicted the collapse of nature and Friedrich Engels warned about nature’s revenge, their worst nightmares are on track to becoming reality. Aside from the very palpable and tangible effects human activity has had on nature and the environment, our relationship with each other has also seen a considerable shift since the time Marx first commented on the Modern Age. The concept of Alienation, which was central to their ecological critique, too has evolved with the times, to make space for newer and newer technological and social “developments” which have created newer rifts (Haydock 2017).

In this paper, I explore the Marxist ecological tradition and the metabolic rift through primary field evidence[i] from Goa, and parts of North Bengal and Sikkim. Goa and Sikkim, two of the smallest states in India by area, are also places that have some of the richest plant and animal biodiversity, with Goa nestled between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, and Sikkim being a part of the eastern Himalayas. Incidentally, their natural beauty also makes them ideal tourist destinations. Currently however, Goa is about to see a resumption in mining activities[ii], mining fields that were left abandoned for a decade will open up soon, and places like Mollem (an ecological hotspot) will be dug up in the name of “development projects” (Datta 2022).  The mountains of Sikkim and North Bengal too are being dug up and burrowed through for a railway project that connects Sivok, a town near Siliguri, West Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim, with plans of extending it to Gangtok at a second phase later on.

In the following sections, I present the observations from the field visits in Goa and Sikkim followed by an analysis of these observations from the Marxian ecologist perspective, foregrounding the idea of ecological rift and alienation as discussed by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York and Fred Magdoff.

Notes from Goa

Eat Dust: Mining and Greed in Goa (2016), born out of author Hartman de Souza’s personal narrative, was centered around his sister Cheryl’s farm. Located in Maina, a village in South Goa between Cavorem and Rivona, the farm is on land rich in iron-ore, which the local mining bigwigs were desperate to acquire. Especially since that lucrative piece of forest land was in between two separate mines, and getting that land would fulfil the dream of having their own little mining corridor.

In the years when illegal mining had raised its head in Goa, Cheryl, with her mother Dora, daughter Aki and village resident Rita, were at the centre of protests, given that the mining activities were underway in their very own backyard. Dora was the stuff of legends – in October 2008, 85 years old and wheelchair bound, she chained herself to the entrance of the mines to stop the trucks from doing their bid. Needless to say, all of them spent some time in Aguada jail.  

During the Age of Greed in Goa, Cheryl was the “mad woman” who kept crying about water standing atop a hill (which was designated to be razed out for mining activities). Most of the villagers paid her no mind, since there were springs all around; plus, they were given enough allurement to keep their mouths shut. Having no water felt like the stuff from a deranged woman’s dreams.                               

Now, years down the line, when the local communities come to her to discuss the water problem, what can she do anymore? For when that hill was blasted, it released the aquifer which was the village’s main water source. “The water came gushing through our homes, and didn’t recede for 6 days”, Cheryl said.                                          

The natural water that is left is contaminated with arsenic, mercury and other hazardous compounds which were used for cleaning out the mud and iron, to be packed onto trucks and sent offshore.[iii] “Almost all the topsoil, mud and iron-ore they took from the hills behind us are now in China. It was low-grade iron ore, very high in demand there.”, said Cheryl. She recalls how trucks would go past the farm, day and night, carrying mud, followed by JCB carriers that were used to flatten the mud elsewhere.                                 

It’s not just water, but food too. Where there are now mines, there used to be dense forests, housing tigers, leopards, deer, wild bison and monkeys, as well as otters, monitor lizards, various kinds of fish, among hundreds of species of plant and wildlife. Different species of snakes and butterflies could also be found. Now with their habitat and food sources lost, the surviving animals have had to move closer to human habitations. Cheryl herself has lost multiple dogs to tiger and leopard attacks. With the food chains disrupted, wild bison and monkeys finish off fruits and vegetables that the villagers grow — this has upturned the local farming system, creating scarcity where there used to be none. This was also a major reason why life became extremely difficult for all during the COVID-19 lockdowns in March-August 2020: no one had any source of livelihood, farms didn’t reap a harvest, there was no money or fuel to drive down to Quepem some 20km away and buy food (Datta 2022).

Near the Karnataka border in the south-eastern part of Goa, at the foothills of the Sahyadris, lies Mollem, a protected area covering 240 sq km, comprising a reserved forest and sanctuary. However, since last year, proposed “development” projects which include the setting up of a double railway line, roadways, electrical line and coal mining requiring almost 40,000 trees to be felled and 1.8 million tonnes of mud to be shifted from the area threaten this ecological hotspot.                                

Across Goa, extreme weather events have started to seem normal. In 2021, after an exceptionally wet summer and a cyclone-filled monsoon, Goa saw monsoon-like rains for the first time in November. These weather changes have already begun creating havoc on local farming and growing patterns, destroying all seeds for the next harvest season. Even the sea, Goans say, has been behaving differently. Judging by the water currents, they all agree that another tsunami is coming.       

North Bengal - Sikkim

The Sivok-Rangpo railway project commenced in 2019 after a 10year delay. Primary observations reveal that this project, covering nearly 45 km with 28 bridges and 14 tunnels comprising 38.5 km, is being undertaken by clearing a considerable portion of forest cover, burrowing through significant chunks of the Himalayan mountains as well as mining of the Rangit and Teesta rivers flowing adjacent to the railway route for sand and stones used in the construction process.

Key trade and defense interests have expedited the project over the last few years; locals believe that the railway route will make ferrying goods from China more convenient, as well as help turn Sikkim into a more functioning “borderland” area. Local communities, by the promises of employment opportunities and better connectivity, seem to be ignoring the very real consequences they have been facing, namely a prolonged monsoon season well into October, high temperatures in December, regular landslides even without rainfall, and roads spontaneously caving in in the absence of trees to hold the soil anymore with precautionary sign boards marking them as “sinking zones”.

Blasting these mountains to create tunnels has ended up removing forest cover and released water from aquifers; trucks carry sand and crushed stone from the river banks to the construction site the water bleeds out from the battered mountains till they run dry and the trucks billow dust as they come and go, to the point of completely blocking visibility on the roads. From Jalpaiguri in North Bengal, to Melli and Rangpo in South Sikkim all the way to Gangtok in the east, surface water quality, air quality and soil quality have all been adversely affected. The remaining vegetation along these routes is covered entirely by a thick coating of dust. All of this stands in sharp contrast to how calm, clean and beautiful everything was before this project commenced. Now, food stalls, engineering company boards, mounds of sand, JCB carriers, cranes, stone crushers, cement mixers can be seen lined up the entire way. Like in Goa, the removed forest cover has made monkeys homeless, who now hang around by the roadsides.

Absurdity and alienation exist in how labourers fortify the battered mountain sides with stones dug from the river bank, concrete and thick wire nets to prevent further landslides, since there are no trees left along those paths to hold on to the soil anymore. The mountains have turned fragile and turn to dust without further provocation.

Massive billboards advertising cement and iron companies are strewn along the mountain roads wherever permissible and adorn small and big shops  with happy faces of famous Bollywood actors and sportspersons promising a better future for people’s families, in a messaging that clearly seeks to manufacture consent to justify the assault that the local ecology and biophysical entities are being subjected to.

Rifts and Contradictions

For years, the loss of land and livelihood has been upheld as the sacrifice people would have to make in order to get jobs and money later on. It does not seem to matter that any sort of prosperity has failed to trickle down to the people till date, barring those few who get to fatten their pockets.

Marx’s analysis of political economy starts off with talking about the theft of dead wood from Germany’s forests by Prussians even though it was from common land and to meet basic necessities (SWP TV 2011); similarly in these two states, there is a theft of a whole horde of natural resources. In Goa, mud and iron have been extracted in unholy amounts, by upturning and stealing the soil, all in the name of development. In North Bengal and Sikkim now, the Rangit and Teesta riverbeds are being excavated for sand and stones, which are subsequently crushed to make concrete that allows for the laying of railway lines.

The metabolic rift, as espoused by Marx, involves a break in natural processes wherein nutrients from the soil, consumed by humans and plant and animal life, fail to find their way back in the form of physical remains. Historically, industrial activities, beginning from the production of fertilisers for agriculture to the livestock industry, resulted in compartmentalised changes in the spatial relationship of humans, plants and animals (Foster and Magdoff 1998). As a result, remains from the end of the production and consumption cycle end up as waste (in the form of sewage, industrial run-off, sludge, packaging materials, etc.). As Foster says, generating ecological rifts with nature is an endemic tendency of capitalism, and waste is built into its system of production.

This alienation from nature and the ecological contradiction is further exacerbated by what is known as the Lauderdale paradox, namely where the system promotes private riches while destroying public wealth: the use value of resources (water, soil, minerals) is destroyed by capitalist forces which promote the creation of scarcity in order to turn them into commodities which can then be monopolised by private players (Clark and Foster 2010). In the case of Goa and Sikkim, the metabolic rift is not simply changing the nature or quality of the soil, but the entire landscape itself. Mountains are being razed to dust as we speak. Landslides have become commonplace since neither are there trees to hold the soil in place, nor is there any water (either in aquifers or as groundwater) left in the soil which could allow for afforestation. This in turn also increases propensity for disaster events which will only make life exceedingly difficult in the future.

In Maina, there are other reasons as to why the local Velip and Dhangar communities, among others, did not play a bigger role in opposing mining activities. They eventually became the agents of the mining industry, enabling the system either as private contractors or truck drivers who ferried the loot from mine to railway/port. However, this is not to say that these communities accumulated wealth off of mining’s back – one-time payments did little to improve their socio-economic status or living standards. Money and the premise of development feeds the social aspirations of people who buy into the myth of development that justifies the environmental exploitation and degradation, as well as lends acceptance among the people whose lands are being destroyed before their own eyes.

Foster’s discussion of the Dependence effect highlights these contradictions inherent in a system where consumption patterns are determined at the level of production by those controlling the means of production, and not by the vast number of workers. Politics and power dictate the flow of money which creates commodities to satisfy irrational consumption needs which generates more money that gets accumulated as wealth. A system whose primary goal is to keep production moving, creates demands for commodities that are simply non-essential and ensures profits for those in control. Alienation of labour, environment and nature, and of communities from each other have allowed for these rifts to take hold. The profit maximisation system relies on this flow, where wealth and capital get concentrated in the hands of a few, and workers are left to survive with the lowest possible compensation. In Goa, as one crosses Quepem, this fact bares itself in simple visuals – the countryside in that part of town has small hamlets, with a few pakka houses built at a little distance from the main settlements with at least one truck parked in front.

The labouring workforce for these projects, as in most Indian cities, predominantly arrives from the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The migrant labourers receive bare minimum wages to work in terrible working conditions, and struggle to make ends meet and have two full meals a day. With systemic forces ensuring their alienation from each other and their work, one cannot expect them to be conscious about the land they work in or nature or the climate for that matter.

While some in the local communities gain petty profits from the exploitative system, any form of dissent from these workers (be it regarding work conditions or the nature of their work) threaten to oust them from the system, making their survival an uncertainty. Decent work conditions for the workforce, adequate compensation and remuneration, food, health insurance, in addition to schooling opportunities for their children – would all have been gamechangers for the climate movement.

Engels puts this fact succinctly across in the eulogy he delivered at Marx’s funeral, saying:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved…”

The evidence from Goa, North Bengal and Sikkim brings us back to the question of production which is now undertaken not to satisfy basic human needs, but to capitalism’s need to multiply on itself in order to sustain the system (SWP TV 2011). Capitalism is antithetical to the human need for clean air, water, food and shelter and is uprooting all systems that satisfy those needs in order to keep the wheels of production moving and exchange value secure. Had it only been concerned about core human needs, mining operations and irrational production in the name of “development” projects would cease; aside from the fact that there are enough recyclable materials in circulation in the world for us to not require further mining, and energy production which can be reliant on renewable resources, human survival and non-human nature depends on cutting back on the irrational cycle of production. All this points to a very grim prediction for the future, already in motion, where only the uber rich, the monopolists and private players, will be able to afford these basic human necessities anymore.

A point of critique in the existing Marxian framework of metabolic rift and the current ecological crisis comes on the lines of what David Harvey cautioned about the risk of “crying wolf” – keeping in mind Foster’s view that people tend to think mechanically rather than dialectically, a lot of people dispute the arguments around the impending world catastrophe, especially when things do not break down in the way or within the timeframe that they are expected to (Haydock 2017). Shifting the narrative from the future that still remains abstract and hard to comprehend, as Lejano and Nero (2020) point out, to the struggles and changes in environment that are lived experiences in the present may help to connect the general public to the dark fact that ecological changes which Marxists and scientists predicted have been set in motion already.

 

 

The author is thankful to the anonymous reviewer for their valuable feedback.
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