Burnt fingers

It is a great shame when the World Bank tells us how to rehabilitate our people

Published: Friday 15 September 2000

The talk in the development circuit has been that the World Bank is tired of being labelled 'anti-poor'. That it is much more bothered now about the social impact of projects it funds. That social responsibility is becoming an important issue. It is good news that the bank has been rethinking its strategy, for the sake of its own reputation, if nothing else. When its project to extend a loan of us $530 million to the public sector giant Coal India Ltd ended in July 2000 with only half the money changing hands, the media did not fail to take note that it was the second time in three years that its loan has got derailed. The honeymoon ended after the bank repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction over the rehabilitation of those ousted from their land by Coal India to expand its mining operations in eastern and central India. Both parties have parted ways with egg on their respective faces.

The bank's director for India, Edwin Lim, was quoted in the press as saying, "We thought we could make a real difference." While the bank can be commended in a better-late-than-never vein for realising the harms that the Indian public sector can perpetrate on poor people, it cannot distance itself from the blame. It should have checked the Indian coal sector's track record and acted accordingly.

Rehabilitation is merely one count on which the Indian coal establishment has messed up monumentally. A greater crime has been the utter environmental destruction of India's coal towns. The nationalisation of India's coal sector has only made things worse (see 'A nationalised nightmare'; Down To Earth , Vol 9, No 4; July 15, 2000). Apart from having absolutely no concern for the poor people that it habitually mistreats and exploits, the Indian public sector is completely immune to any knowledge of the environment. If it comes up with rehabilitation schemes and policies, these are merely for the consumption of funding agencies. It is a national disgrace that the World Bank, which has been at the receiving end of a lot of criticism across the world for being anti-poor, now tells us how to rehabilitate our own people.

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