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Indian NGOs Confront Bank Presidentn


"When Wolfensohn insisted that he could not solve all of India's problems, Madha Kohli, an activist fighting the expansion of the Riahnd power project suggested, 'In that case, do not create fresh problems for us. As it is, the Bank's policies are responsible for our predicament.'" Indian NGOs angered by the role that the World Bank has played in India confronted Bank President James Wolfensohn during his trip there in October.

Wolfensohn was challenged in New Delhi by the NGOs just as he was nearing the end of his ten-day visit in which he and his delegation had reviewed the status of the Bank's portfolio with top Indian officials. Among the points of contention with the protesting NGOs was Wolfensohn 's failure to visit some of the Bank's most controversial projects.

"Many of us wanted James Wolfensohn to visit the Singrauli, Narmada and Subernarekha projects to see the damage done to the environment and the people who are displaced," said Kavaljit Singh, coordinator of the Delhi-based Public Interest Research Group. Instead, said Singh, Wolfensohn decided to visit the Talacher power project in Orissa, "where NGOs have already been coopted and are involved in cleaning up the mess" created by the Bank-funded project.

Unwilling to provide what it considered to be token representation to a meeting scheduled for Wolfensohn with other Indian NGOs, the Bank critics remained outside a conference Centre shouting slogans amidst platoons of police. Five representatives were eventually granted entrance, among them, the well-known and highly respected member of the leadership of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Medha Patkar.

According to sources who attended the meeting, Patkar told Wolfensohn that the Bank had done more harm than good in India, with the institution's net impact being the destruction of the environment, increasing displacement and a net transfer of resources from the poor and tribals to the national and international elite.

Wolfensohn, say sources, replied that the Bank doesn't run India, but only assists. When Wolfensohn insisted that he could not solve all of India's problems, Madha Kohli, an activist fighting the expansion of the Riahnd power project suggested, "In that case, do not create fresh problems for us. As it is, the Bank's policies are responsible for our predicament."

An open letter to Wolfensohn, signed by some 40 Indian NGOs, criticized the Bank's approach to Indian agriculture, forestry, health, and education. It also took the Bank to task for its influence on foreign investment, trade and privatization policies.

"Over the decades, the policies imposed by the Bank have significantly distorted development priorities, destroyed resources and impoverished millions," charged the letter's authors. "And now, the 'new' policies that are being promoted by the Bank under the Structural Adjustment Program are aggravating these impacts many times over ... The Bank is not just controlling single projects or sectors, it is commanding the entire macro-economy."

For his part, Wolfensohn promised that he would review the letter "sincerely" and, at a press briefing the following day, addressed the question of Bank intervention.

"Intrusion into the internal affairs of a country has been a major allegation leveled against us. But we consider some conditionalities as vital to a country," he said. He denied that his agenda is dictated by Washington....." I do not report to the US Treasury," he asserted. "It is just coincidence if the US follows a line that we do."

The NGO letter also lambasted the Bank for "consistently ignoring the growing and strident voices all over the world and especially H2 India that are not just challenging this 'destructive' model of development but are offering just and viable solutions that are truly participative, whose benefits can reach out to the poorest and the most needy, and which will be socially and environmentally benign, even enhancing. It is unfortunate." the letter went on to say, "that you have missed the opportunity to try and understand all this in your visit to India ... We have been left with no option but to conclude that the Bank has no positive role in India."

Since 1945, India has received $42 billion from the Bank. During fiscal year l 996, it was due to receive $2.l billion, including $1.3 billion in IDA credits, making India the second largest borrower of the Bank after China.

During his trip, Wolfensohn had committed to review all 88 bank-assisted projects in India during the next 4 to 6 months, citing as a concern the non-utilization of much of the funding already made available by the Bank.

- From BANK CHECK of December 1996/January 1997

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