Community voices: interview with Vidya Dinker

By Lorena Cotza Oct 30, 2020

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Ahead of the Finance in Common summit, we speak with Vidya Dinker – Indian social activist and coordinator of Growthwatch – about development finance, human rights, the impact of development projects on local communities, and the way forward.

How are development projects affecting the life of local communities in South-east Asia?

In our region, South Asia, there are examples everywhere of multilateral development banks putting in money and saying all the right things, and yet when we see up close from the ground up, the situation is completely different from what we are being told – with what the project reports say, with what is promised, even with what the monitoring reports say.

For example, early last year, we heard about an ADB project in Kolkata, a very old city known worldwide. So when somebody comes up with money to augment the city water supply and underground drainage, nobody can fault that – every city wants a good water and sanitation system, and therefore the local municipality was happy. On record, the ADB will say that nobody was displaced, and yet on the ground, there were loads of immobile street vendors – clothes menders, laundrettes, garment vendors, electricity repair shops, footwear repair, most of whom have small tea stalls. It’s often women who run these stalls and make little snacks and tea and sell cigarettes. Of course the water and drainage pipes are down the roadside too, but they say that nobody will be displaced, that nobody’s business will be affected. They’re just going to dig on the road, and it’ll be done in 15 days and everything will be back to normal. They still maintain this. But for a year and a half, people have been displaced. They were vending their wares and services, and they were asked to take down their makeshift shops and were told that in a month or two everything would be back to normal – and they acquiesced, partially through fear as they don’t have licenses. They spent a lot of money to store their things, and most things rotted away. Those people have been without income for so long! Yet the ADB will just say that access to the shop was affected, and nothing else. They will say that they had compensation to people for two weeks – but no-one was paid. No-one was even told that they were eligible for compensation. All this talk of a Grievance Redress Mechanism system seems to have no evidence, nor does the talk about consultations about free, informed, prior consent. It’s just a concept. It looks great on paper, but it doesn’t correspond to the reality on the ground. And this is a simple project – not a power plant, or irrigation canal, or a metro. It’s just a drainage pipeline. And the devastation it’s wreaked in the community – 123 on one street according to the ADB, slightly more according to us. This community for a year and a half has not been able to rebuild their shops, rebuild their lives, rebuild their livelihoods – where are they supposed to go – how are they supposed to survive? And then comes COVID-19. And I’ve been asking my friends to donate money to this community at this time, but how much can come from this generosity, for people who had livelihoods built up over years plundered by a bank?

Do you think development can ever be sustainable?

These development banks aren’t really development banks – they just spread destruction in our communities in the name of development. And I think it’s funny that they come together at a summit with no pretence – and it’s good that there’s no pretence! They do this in our name, especially the Global South, and it’s not that we’re important to them. Pushing out their loans and loan recovery is what’s important. I wonder if the whole COVID-19 and post-COVID recovery dialogue is more about them and their recovery than the communities on the ground. I don’t think we shouldn’t be surprised that matters important to us, like environmental, social and human rights, aren’t important to them. The signal is loud and clear – a big summit, 450 of them, all the big players, and we don’t need to kid ourselves anymore – they don’t care, they don’t need us there, they don’t need to discuss issues that are important to us but to them – they’ll just continue spread inequality and debt across the world. That’s the reality that we need to understand and deal with.

There are people who take the role of being knowledge manufacturers upon them – our whole idea of sustainable development is very warped right now. What I think is sustainable and what I think is development hardly even matters. Governments, who are their clients, lap us this knowledge of what sustainable development is and shove it down our throats. What communities and people on the ground know and experience as sustainable development is shoved aside; the juggernaut of development rolls over our communities. There is nothing that is in the pipeline in terms or projects or policies or a world view which is truly sustainable, and so our understanding of development itself is now so stunted because of what they’re doing. So to even articulate a new form, which could be new ways of looking at development itself, is so challenging right now that even our own people don’t understand us anymore, because development is about being big and bold and big projects with lots of money and big infrastructure projects. That’s the understanding of development, and things that really matter get no space, even in peoples’ minds. How can we have these conversations again?

Which changes has COVID-19 brought in the development sector? And where do you see some spaces for hope?

When COVID-19 came, a lot of our brethren were excited; they thought it was a great opportunity to build anew. Unfortunately, these people with all the money are not thinking outside of the box. They are thinking in the same way, and therefore much of what we’re experiencing on the ground is business as usual, but there needs to be a breaking down of patterns in order to build afresh, which I don’t see happening. So any talk of sustainability is wishful thinking. How can we think of implementing something sustainable? Only if we step firmly away from these bodies that are interfering in our daily lives can we do this. So I don’t have a clear answer, as there’s no space to think outside of the box nowadays. 

If you could send a message to the banks attending the Finance in Common summit, what would you say to them?

Even if we manage to fight and get a space in the Finance in Common summit, it would be a sanitised space that they accord you with its boundaries where you can vent and air a little. Either way, this is what they want. A little space with a safety valve. These sanitised spaces are given by big summits –  spaces where the pressure is reduced a little, and our angst and anger is contained so that we can be further manipulated.

Really, you need us. It’s not that we need you. You’ve given us a view that we need you for development to happen in our countries. COVID-19 is something we’re all dealing with, and it’s a difficult time for most people. Our communities need to go back to something simpler, to what is doable, and fashion something in cooperation. The way business was conducted didn’t afford people space to make decisions on their own. If we can go back to slowing down more and thinking more, that would help. We should take all spaces not as spaces to talk to those who’ve tried to impose their worldview of how the economy should be shaped, but to consolidate among ourselves and have those conversations among ourselves, and then push back and tell them that their place is only where we want you them to be, not where they want to be. If we manage to do this, we’ll have done a lot.

I’m an eternal optimist, though sometimes things around us can be somewhat of a challenge and you don’t know how we’ll surmount it. For those of us who think differently, at the same time, from the run of the mill thought process of the government, it’s a time for us to hold our space. Solidarity during COVID-19 has been exceptional, and we’ve built solidarities with communities across the world using social media etc. There’s a feeling of shared loss and challenges, and that brings us together. If we can hold our space, that bodes well for the future. We can use this time to reflect on what we’ve done well and not so well, and we can charter our course with a strategic action plan. Some parts may be slow to start because of the pandemic, but that’s fine. Many of us have been moving so fast in our own directions. This is a good time to pause and move forwards with collective purpose. Even though we’ve lost a few fighters to COVID and this hurts us, and we’re at home, perhaps rightly so, it’s still positive that we ourselves declutter and slow down and reflect and work and maybe build better after this.

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Lorena Cotza
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