Experts, Activists and Journalists Discussed Infrastructure Finance in India: A Report

September 6, 2019, Nagpur: Around 60 activists, researchers, academics, journalists, trade unionists and grassroots community organisers attended recently concluded two-day conference on Infrastructure Finance in India. The conference, which was jointly organised by the Centre for Financial Accountability and Centre for the Sustainable Use of Natural and Social Resources, witnessed discussions on current mega infrastructure projects, finance institutions, planning and its impacts. The emphasis at the conference was on how India is fast becoming a site of global capital investment and the forces driving it.

Dunu Roy, of Hazards Centre, set the stage for the conference by presenting an overall picture of the history and changing face of infrastructure finance in the country. He emphasised that the shift is seen from aiming at public welfare to purely profitable undertakings and the cycle which perpetuates it with finance as its main driver. He discussed examples from earlier programs such as JNNURM and the projects planned and executed under it, which promoted the centralised planning processes – development and investment in a central node and then moves to the peripheral nodes. This continues to happen in current programs like smart cities.

Vishwas Utagi, Vice President of All India Bank Employees Association, elaborated on the functioning of the banks, NPAs, recent significant changes and its impacts on the financial architecture of the country. The investments and other financial aspects were also discussed in this session, giving the trends in infrastructure financing where the push is to attract private financing into infrastructure projects.

The impact of these large infrastructure projects on local communities was looked at – in cities, small towns, urban spaces, and especially coasts with several projects under programs like Sagarmala, smart cities, industrial corridors, etc. The effects of change in policy in the case of forest and coastal communities, struggles and stories of resistance were also shared.

In one of the sessions, Ashok Datar from Mumbai, an expert on public transport systems, emphasise public transport in regard to its low carbon emission and presented suggestion on penalising vehicle owners and encouraging pedestrian and non-motorised vehicles. There was added emphasis on the colossal costs which are being undertaken by NFIs and ULBs, which could instead be utilised for the benefit of the public.

Shweta Damle, an independent researcher from Mumbai, focused on FDI in real estate and the displacement it causes. Marina Joseph focused on the sub-par infrastructure being provided to urban poor under PPP models in Mumbai and lack of spaces for the youth growing up in these tenements. Creation of schools and health centres has to be adjusted in these crumbling buildings where no separate land is provided.

Krishnakant of Paryavaran Sukarsha Samiti shed light on details of the Bullet Train project which will run between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. He said that the already existing networks of transport between the two hubs are well developed and sufficient enough to challenge the financing of Bullet Train and upcoming projects which will cut through farming lands on a large scale. He also shared about the campaign against the Bullet train project by the farming communities in Gujarat and how they have been developing various strategies like engaging with financial institutions for fair compensation to the affected communities.

Macanzy Dabre working with hawkers in the Mumbai area shared information about cutting off of livelihoods of street vendors and hawkers and takeovers by online giants like Amazon and Uber Eats among others. Shutting off the access of highways to hawkers has been done by the state and has now extended to struggles of hawkers along with small shop owners who are banding against FDI. Immense amounts of investment by private players even suffering ongoing losses is being done to monopolise markets where hawkers earned their incomes.

Jesu Rethinam, from SNEHA, Nagapattinam, TN, discussed the details of the ongoing Sagarmala project and its impact on fisher communities along with coastal states stretching along India. The direct attack on their lives and livelihoods by these projects by disallowing fishing communities to continue with their work has wreaked havoc on their way of life and social identity. The belief that the fish would be harvested from oceans without having to be concerned for fishing communities dictates the stance of the state which terms them as ‘microscopic’ communities.

T. Peter, General Secretary of National Fishworkers Forum, also emphasised that there will have to be mass mobilisation to fight against the forces going against the wellbeing of coastal communities, biodiversity and natural environment.

Philip Kujur spoke of the impacts and implications of large development projects such as mines in the state of Jharkhand and how these projects a severely damaging the environment as well as the livelihoods of the farming and forest-dwelling communities. It has now become a grave question of survival.

A presentation of the findings and analysis of the Smart Cities Mission was made by Gaurav Dwivedi of CFA, looking at various IFIs, NFIs and private companies who are lending money for the development of smart cities under PPP.

A case study of Bhopal smart city by Vijay Kumar shed light on the ground realities of the people being affected by smart city processes of area-based development with widespread displacement, threats to privacy through surveillance under the pan-city development with smart poles, exorbitant spending on projects such as smart bicycles, where cheaper alternatives were available. The connections of such spending can be traced back to the 2008 economic slump. The creation of a US-based Smart Cities Council and the fact that the idea of smart cities is not an essentially Indian one but connected to larger scenarios was discussed.

Shailendra Dubey of All India Power Engineers Federations talked of private investment in the power sector, growing financial crisis and huge loans in power generation and Discoms. Lengthy legal cases in this scenario include those with Reliance in Sasan and Adani-Mundra with regard to tariff revisions. Rajesh Kumar from CFA gave an overall picture of the energy sector with a view of the last few years of the rise and fall in investment patterns from IFIs and NFIs as well as private financing institutions like EXIM banks, commercial banks and NBFCs. Distributions and trends in coal and renewables were also highlighted as an issue to focus on in the coming days.

In the brainstorming session for future strategy building, suggestions were given by the panel as well as the participants such as finding common threads running through the vast array of issues, sectors and struggle to build a broader collective response to the changes that are happening and the impacts. Suggestions also came forward to use finance as a tool among others to strategise around various issues, sectors. Groups from different states suggested that as part of the further planning process, regional and state-level meetings on infrastructure projects could be planned in the coming future. Groups from Kerala, Orissa, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu have suggested and taken the initiative in taking this process forward.

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