Academic journal article New Formations

Unimagined Communities: Developmental Refugees, Megadams and Monumental Modernity

Academic journal article New Formations

Unimagined Communities: Developmental Refugees, Megadams and Monumental Modernity

Article excerpt

Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know.

In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development?

Eduardo Galeano, 'Those Little Numbers and People'

The highest expression of dignity can be summed up in the single word 'No!'

Dai Qing, 'China: Rivers and Dams,' Goldman Environmental Prize speech

The idea of the modern nation-state is sustained by the production of imagined communities but also by the active production of unimagined communities. I refer here not to those communities that lie beyond the national boundaries but rather to those unimagined communities internal to the space of the nation-state, communities whose vigorously unimagined condition become indispensable to the maintenance of a highly selective discourse of national development. Narratives of national development--especially those that imply a unified redemptive trajectory--are highly partial narratives that depend on energetically inculcated habits of imaginative limit, habits that efface from view communities that inconvenience or disturb the implied trajectory of a unitary national ascent. Assaults on a nation's environmental resources frequently depend not just on the physical displacement of local communities, but on their imaginative displacement as well, indeed on the prior rhetorical and visual evacuation of those communities from the idea of the developing nation-state. The imaginative work of expulsion typically predates the arrival of the police, the dogs, the lorries, the bulldozers, and the engineers. Thus the direct violence of physical eviction becomes coupled to an indirect bureaucratic and media violence that creates and sustains the conditions for successfully administered invisibility. The result is what I have elsewhere called spatial amnesia, as communities, under the banner of development, are physically unsettled and imaginatively displaced, evacuated from place and time and thus uncoupled from the idea of a national future and a national memory. (1)

We witnessed a classic instance of this process with the invention, under apartheid, of what were called 'surplus people'. Largely women and children, these 'surplus people' were deemed superfluous to the labour market and to the idea of national development and were forcibly removed or barred from cities. (2) Trucked to remote rural areas--the so-called 'dumping grounds'--they were 'resettled' in overcrowded conditions with no viable means of sustenance. The consequences--human and environmental - were disastrous. Crucially, the dynamics of forced removal depended not just on direct police violence but on the administration of an imaginative violence whereby certain communities were designated indispensable to the nation and others designated expendable and driven out of sight. This invention of surplus people through the conjoined processes of imaginative expulsion and forced removal was far from unique to apartheid South Africa. Indeed, the production of ghosted communities who haunt the visible nation has been essential for maintaining the dominant narratives of national development, not least during the high era of neo-liberal globalisation. (3) The intertwined processes of imaginative and physical eviction have assumed a particularly dramatic force around the construction of megadams, those iconic structures of monumental modernity that serve to concretise the idea that developing nations are 'catching up', as evidenced by spectacular, soaring feats of world-class engineering.

When it comes to narratives of resource development--whether of water, oil, gas, minerals, or forests--the people recast as 'surplus' are most often rural, or at least people sent ricocheting between rural and urban desperation. Usually they are (to invoke Madhar Gadgil and Ramchandra Guha's phrase) 'ecosystem people', dependent for their survival on the seasonal cycles of a web of ecosystems and therefore often living in circumstances of adaptable mobility. …

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