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Kharkiv’s patchwork resistance

Kharkiv’s musicians came together in a secret underground bunker for a fundraising gig, in aid of the city’s defence efforts.

Kharkiv, which lies just over 30 kilometres from Russia in northeast Ukraine has been shelled since the first hours of the invasion. Whole streets are devastated, left in ruins. Entire residential districts are burnt out.

But deep in a secret bunker under the city, Kharkiv’s best musicians and writers livestream a concert from their makeshift studio. The atmosphere is heady and happy, with an overwhelming sense of solidarity and purpose. This gig is just one small part of the society-wide effort to crowdfund for the army.

Enjoying the show are Oleg and his teenage son Maksim. Oleg, in normal times, is a judge. Now he’s a volunteer in the civil defence. On their army fatigues, they both wear a patch that reads ‘MRIYA’ and features a large white plane: their Kyiv battalion is named in honour of the world’s largest cargo plane which was destroyed by the Russian army in late February. In Ukrainianmriyameans ‘dream’. It reflects Ukraine’s dream of freedom, Oleg says earnestly.

Volunteer work proceeds at a frantic pace. A trendy cafe has become a hub for aid, each room stacked with sacks of rice and sugar. Nappies are piled up to the ceiling and there is a constant flow of volunteers and cars

The patches are eye-catching: stylized and colourful. The ones for the Kharkiv’s battalion feature the spectacular 1920s constructivist ‘Derzhprom’ building which somehow escaped with just broken windows when rockets hit the central square on 1 March.

A thin, softly-spoken young man explains with pride that he designed this patch. He is in fact responsible for many of the most used pro-Ukraine posters and patches. ‘This is my part in the war,’ he says, ‘my battleground’.

Elsewhere in the city, the volunteer work proceeds at a frantic pace. A trendy cafe has become a hub for aid, each room stacked with sacks of rice and sugar. Nappies are piled up to the ceiling and there is a constant flow of volunteers and cars. The big problem is fuel, as it is all over Ukraine. Bombs destroy fuel depots and supplies can’t get in.

Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, in her thirties, has like many of her generation been helping the army and humanitarian efforts since Russia annexed Crimea and the war began in 2014, but now this is her whole life.I meet her at Kharkiv’s main fire station, a beautiful 1980s building full of Soviet murals and marble. It’s a big day: they are finally delivering the state-of-the-art equipment needed to find survivors under rubble. Rescuers have been trying to work without this kit for two and a half months, while Ivanna and her friends tried desperately to source it.

Through their charity Kharkiv With You, they eventually found a supplier. The kit being handed over this rainy morning came from the US, via Finland, and cost more than $10,000.Should the state be doing the work of getting equipment to emergency services and the army, rather than these exhausted volunteers?

‘No state in the world could be ready for the challenge we’re facing now,’ Ivanna says. ‘Of course there are “holes” – our task is to “patch” them. The state is us too.’

People like Ivanna have been building this massive network of civic activism and self-organization since the Maidan revolution in 2014. Without it, this war might be going very differently.

Correction: A previous version of this article named Oleg as Igor. The correct name is Oleg.


‘Agony uncle, is it okay to accept rent from my partner?’

Illustration by Emma Peer
Q: A year ago, I was able to put down a deposit on a flat after inheriting some money from a grandparent. I’ve been living here alone. But my boyfriend and I have recently decided to live together, and the simplest thing would be for him to move in here. I trust him, but joint ownership would be a big commitment. He’s insistent that he pay his way, but I don’t feel comfortable charging him rent: this would effectively mean he was paying towards an asset I could sell in the future. What should I do?
Worried of Cambridge

A: Two things preoccupy the modern soul: relationships and property. Just look at popular culture: if we’re not watching ‘Love Island’ or ‘First Dates’, or scrolling through online dating apps, then we’re absorbed in ‘Selling Sunset’, ‘Location, Location, Location’ or ‘Grand Designs’. One particular millennial pastime is looking at online listings for houses that will always remain out of reach: picturing a charmed life amid high ceilings and period fixtures, before returning to the reality of their cramped, multi-occupancy, landlord-owned fixer-upper. And, oh, did we mention: the rent’s going up again. Sorry, it’s the cost of living. Like most things, we can blame neoliberalism for our messed up attachment to both. Atomized individualism, with people reduced to Top Trumps-style statistics about themselves, leads to the impoverished nature of contemporary dating. And a political economy in which the only thing that actually grows is house prices means that property occupies a feverish position in the English mindset. It’s an investment, the future, the nest egg. Anything perceived to threaten its value (see almost every socialist movement to come close to government) is presented as an existential threat. Families are torn apart over inheritance, and relationships can smash on the rocks of future property decisions. You both have valid points of view. Your boyfriend wants to pay his way rather than be a kept man – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you don’t want to be his de facto landlord – is there anything less romantic?

I try not to be too prescriptive in this column, but there are some concrete solutions out there. You should probably look into drawing up something called a declaration of trust, which would establish some terms and conditions. You could split your monthly payments down the middle, but agree to buy him out should you ever break up – by paying back to him everything he’s put into the mortgage. This would be costly, but the fact that you are currently able to pay the mortgage off by yourself suggests to me you’d be able to afford this.

And you could include a clause that after, say, four or five years, you could revisit the agreement and go for joint ownership if you both want to. This would usually allow him half of the equity that results from any sale, though you’ll of course be entitled to the value of the deposit you put in. Get a lawyer to draw something up. Let him show it to a trusted third party to get another opinion. You’ll work something out.

None of this is exactly an aphrodisiac, is it? But, as I said, questions about property make people in this country go a bit mad, and you don’t know what the future holds, so it’s prudent to have something agreed upon.

Ultimately, though, this decision is as much about the future of your relationship as it is the property. Other things might be swirling beneath the surface – is it that you cherish and will miss the independence of living alone? Is it that you can’t honestly picture the long-term future together that this decision implies? These are all important concerns, not to be bottled up, but it’s not my job to be a relationship counsellor when I know so little about you guys. In fact, in my own life, I’m always putting off hard questions and distracting myself. In fact, look, ‘Grand Designs’ is on. I haven’t seen this one...

Send your dilemmas to [email protected]


Who are you calling a nazi?

A rally to mark Defender of Ukraine Day, in Kiev, on 14 October 2017. Activists and supporters of the Azov, Svoboda (Freedom), Ukrainian nationalist parties and Right Sector took part.

Europe’s neo-nazi problem has been growing. The horror of the Nazis’ atrocities in Europe is fading from living memory with the passing of the last survivors of the Holocaust, and far-right politicians have used this historic distance to manipulate the past like never before. At the same time, fascism has exploited popular discontent with neoliberal capitalism, particularly the ‘status anxiety’ the latter creates. The diminishing influence of the Left, and the disappearance of leftwing intellectual traditions rooted in economic structures, has created a vacuum in which far-right narratives flourish, and where scapegoating often goes unchallenged.

Now the charge of neo-nazism has entered the realm of geopolitics, with Vladimir Putin’s bogus allegation that the Ukrainian government needs ‘de-nazification’ by his tanks and missiles. Putin’s rally cry for his ‘special military operation’ is redolent of the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in the 1940s – a period that still looms large in the Russian military imagination.

Putin’s authoritarian presidency has tolerated and actively encouraged prejudice - most notably homophobia and racism - and is propped up by state and mercenary violence

It is true there are long histories of intolerance, racism and antisemitism in Ukraine – and indeed in Russia – that have occasionally spilled over into outright neo-nazism. The inaccurate allegation that Zelensky’s government is formed of – or at least propped up by – fascists is often rebutted with the factually-correct assertion that the coalition of far-right movements organized around two parties, The Right Sector and Svoboda, won only 2.5 per cent of the vote and no seats in the 2019 election. Indeed, this is a very low figure compared with the electoral fortunes of the official far right in other European countries, and a marked decline from Svoboda’s 10.5 per cent of the Ukrainian vote in 2012.

But that is not the whole story. Fascists maintain a visible presence in Ukraine’s military through the Azov Regiment, formed as a paramilitary organization in 2014 to defend the eastern Donbas region from separatist forces. It was later incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. Following Russia’s 2022 invasion, Azov has again played a key role, this time defending the battered port city of Mariupol.

When fascists go mainstream

Azov’s insignia features a Wolfsangel, the German heraldic symbol adopted by a number of Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht units during Nazi rule. Michael Colborne, a journalist who wrote a book about Azov, says the regiment was formed by ‘a ragtag group of far-right thugs, football hooligans and international hangers-on’. While Colborne has argued that the regiment is no longer a neo-nazi force in itself, he believes ‘there are clearly neo-nazis within its ranks’ and situates it within the wider ‘Azov movement’ – a support base which grew around the battalion and remains an independent far-right force, in spite of the regiment’s absorption into the Ukrainian state.

The inclusion of a video message from an Azov soldier in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the Hellenic Parliament this April led to condemnation from across the Greek political spectrum. The incident followed an earlier controversy in Scotland where politicians applauded Andriy Parubiy, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, during his 2018 visit to Edinburgh. It was only after awkward questions from journalists that lawmakers realized Parubiy, by then aligned with a mainstream pro-European centre-right party, had previously co-founded the neo-Nazi Social-National Party of Ukraine, whose insignia – like that of Azov – featured the Wolfsangel.

The debacle highlighted a fundamental aspect of Ukraine’s neo-nazi problem: that some historic far-right leaders have been quietly incorporated into the political mainstream. It’s underlined by the rehabilitation of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader who collaborated with Nazi Germany in fighting the USSR during World War Two. Since the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, which forced out the corrupt but elected pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, 34 streets have been re-named after Bandera.

Euromaidan has been characterized by some – notably Putin, but also many on the Western Left – as a fascist (or ‘fascist-backed’) coup. Ukraine’s pro-European political establishment, along with human rights campaigners and Western European governments, firmly reject this depiction and instead see it as an act of people-powered democracy.

The truth lies somewhere in between. The uprising was indeed supported by neo-nazi militias, but it also mobilized thousands of progressive activists who saw a brighter future for Ukraine as an ally of Western Europe, as opposed to a client state of the Kremlin.

The protests can alternatively be viewed as a constitutional coup, like those that forced out Australia’s leftwing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1976 and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff in 2016 – both of which, like Euromaidan, were egged on by the US State Department.

A man with a dog takes part in the Russian March, organized by nationalists and activists of far-right political groups to mark the National Unity Day in Moscow, ​​​​​4 November 2018.

Far-right footsie

Ukraine’s acceptance of neo-nazis into mainstream politics is far from unique. Croatia has also rehabilitated Nazi collaborators and Poland has effectively made acknowledging the role of Poles in the Holocaust a criminal act. In the recent elections in Hungary, the Jobbik party swapped its former paramilitary uniforms for blazers as it joined liberals and social democrats in a united opposition against Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz – insisting its neo-nazism was firmly in the past. And in the run-up to France’s recent presidential election Marine Le Pen also insisted she no longer leads a fascist party.

Russia has its own shameful history of xenophobia and antisemitism. And Putin is well known for playing footsie with the far right – both in the Donbas and more generally across Europe. The adoption of the ‘people’s republic’ moniker by the breakaway states in the Donbas has led some in the West to assume they are socialist-led, in the model of Soviet Union member states, but in fact they are governed by nationalists (though not neo-nazis). The team of international observers chosen to legitimate the 2014 independence referendums in these areas even included representatives of the far right from across Europe.

With defeating the Nazis crucial to its national identity, Russia’s neo-nazi problem has different roots – but it is no less real. In the current war, Putin’s declaration that Ukraine is a creation of ‘Bolshevik, Communist Russia’ draws on the thinking of Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Sometimes described as ‘Putin’s brain’, Dugin has argued that Russia has a ‘future of greatness’ because ‘Russia was always and tried to be a superpower’ – exactly the kind of warped nostalgia on which nazis have thrived.

As in Ukraine, neo-nazi symbols and ideologies were strictly prohibited in Russia during the Soviet period. But in falsely externalizing fascism as an alien force, the Warsaw Pact countries inadvertently contributed to its rebirth after 1991.

Russian neo-nazism most notably reared its ugly head when two neo-nazi outfits formed an unholy alliance with Communists, as well as other rightwing nationalists, during the 1993 constitutional crisis. Their aim was to wrest control of Russia from the dubious, corrupt and frequently inebriated President Boris Yeltsin. But unlike Ukraine’s Yanukovych back in 2014, Yeltsin could count on the support of the White House. He saw off the ‘October Coup’ and pushed through a new constitution that established the Russian president’s unrivalled power. This has given his successor Putin all the tools he needs to rule as an authoritarian strongman.

No place for outsiders

So, where is Russia’s far right now? The neo-nazi groups that took part in the October Coup have long disbanded. But rightwing nationalists have been useful to Putin. When he feared a domino effect from ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring countries in the mid-2000s he embraced the far right in an effort to whip up popular support for his own government. Eventually though, groupings of this bent drifted back towards the anti-Putin opposition, and some were subsequently banned.

Nonetheless, some Russian far rightists support Putin in the current conflict. The Russian Imperial Movement, a white-supremacist paramilitary group considered a terrorist organization by the US, has been linked to the shadowy Kremlin-allied Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries, active across Africa and the Middle East (including Syria), as well as Ukraine. The Kremlin denies any knowledge. A group known as Male State – theoretically outlawed by a Russian court – has tens of thousands of members, and its online presence is a hotbed of support for the war.

Putin’s authoritarian presidency has been built upon a nationalism with little place for outsiders. It has tolerated and actively encouraged prejudice – most notably homophobia and racism – and is propped up by state and mercenary violence. These conditions provide prime breeding territory for the far right – and though the state has cracked down on some neo-nazi groups it has done so purely for political convenience, much as it does with leftwing activity.

Russia’s president has also been increasingly lionized by far-right groups and nationalist authoritarian governments across the world. Nick Fuentes, a notorious antisemite and leading white nationalist organizer in the US, called for a ‘round of applause for Russia’ at the America First Political Action Conference in March – which was addressed by hard-right Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green. Putin has also sought to emulate the Western ‘alt right’ in its successful redefinition of the political debate around the ‘culture wars’: he recently decried ‘cancel culture’ and spoke out against criticism of JK Rowling for alleged transphobia.

It’s clear enough that Putin’s current ‘de-nazification’ objective is disingenuous and opportunistic. The presence of neo-nazis in Ukraine should be no barrier to our solidarity with the Ukrainian people in the face of an horrific invasion and increasing evidence of war crimes.

But de-nazification is a necessity nonetheless: in Ukraine and Russia alike. As we have established, this cannot be a project of statecraft; least of all propagated by a global superpower which has made opportunistic alliances with the far right. It instead requires a popular anti-fascist movement built from the ground up, backed by a consistently anti-imperialist Left at home and abroad. And that will only be possible in conditions free from war and authoritarian government.


Issue of New Internationalist

Reader-owned global journalism

July-August 2022

Rivers of life

The wellsprings of ancient human civilizations, rivers are considered holy in many cultures. A vital source of precious freshwater, they are rightly called the arteries of life; we draw upon them in order to farm, drink and fish. Sacred they may be, yet they are increasingly sinned against, as they are blocked, diverted, overexploited and polluted by human activity. The richest habitats in terms of size for biodiversity, they are seeing the swiftest decline in species.


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Shooting the messenger

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© 2008 Roger H. Goun.

Brazil’s National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ) recently released a report detailing 430 cases of attacks against journalists in 2021. Leading the charge is our president, Jair Bolsonaro – responsible for 147 registered cases, mainly public vilification and verbal assaults. He had held the dubious distinction of attacker-in-chief in 2020 as well.

The state-owned broadcast network (EBC) follows hot on his heels, accounting for another 142 cases. Close to five per cent of the attacks came from Bolsonaro supporters, who regard violence in the name of their hero as an almost divine mission.

Physical intimidation is not uncommon. On 12 December 2021, TV reporters were wounded by security guards and fans of the president while trying to cover Bolsonaro’s visit to a region hit by heavy rains. And on 31 October, journalists reporting on Bolsonaro’s trip to the G20 in Rome were roughed up by the president’s security agents.

Since coming into office, Bolsonaro has sought to control institutions representing public power: the federal police, federal revenue service, attorney general’s office, and environmental inspection agencies. It’s a two-pronged strategy of attack and co-option. When it comes to civil society, it’s the press that’s in his gunsights.

For Bolsonaro, it is important that the public sees less-than-flattering media reports as lies. Such as those regarding the embezzlement of public resources by members of his family, or corruption in the purchase of vaccines or school buses by the health and education ministries. His administration’s incompetence in generating jobs and reducing hunger is denounced as fake news. The demonizing of reporters who break these stories is now standard.

Women journalists in particular raise the ire of the ‘Bolsonaristas’, with sexism playing a vicious role. A recent survey of women and LGBTQI+ journalists by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Gênero e Número showed that almost 85 per cent had changed their behaviour on social media to protect themselves from attacks, with more than 50 per cent saying the barrage of abuse impacted their professional lives. Fifteen per cent disclosed they had developed mental health issues as a result of the persecution.

Bolsonaro is not above name calling. In June 2021, he told a female TV reporter to shut up during an interview and called her a ‘dick’. In a speech to his supporters that same month he referred to a woman TV presenter as a ‘quadruped’. In April this year, the president’s son Eduardo, who is also a federal deputy, mocked the torture suffered by one of Brazil’s best-known woman journalists during the military dictatorship years.

Sadly, women journalists face abuse the world over. And in Brazil, there are other politicians, Left and Right, who also act intolerantly against reporters. They deserve repudiation too. But our president takes hatred of the press to another level, his pronouncements amplified by both state and social media.

The attacks on journalists by the president and his family have a clear political intent. With institutions functioning normally, such behaviour would not go unpunished. Unfortunately, this is not the case.


The interview: Ndongo Samba Sylla


Ndongo S Sylla believes neo-colonialism is an outdated term. More worrying for him is the trend of Afro-liberalism, which sees African elites allied with corporate transnational interests.

We speak over the phone from the Senegalese capital, where he works at the Dakar office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Sylla explains how ties to Western finance continue to obstruct economic independence. He offers a corrective: that Senegal – and the African continent more widely – could escape the current exploitative, export-based, free-trade model and instead develop a policy that is pro-people and ecology.

Sylla is the co-editor of Economic and Monetary Sovereignty in 21st Century Africa, author of The Fair Trade Scandal and co-author of Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: the CFA Franc Story.

Senegal is classified as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country, with one of the highest external debts in the world. How did it get here?

The first thing to say is that Senegal’s debt, at 70 per cent of GDP, means it is far from the world’s most indebted country. Japan has a 250 per cent debt to GDP ratio, for example. The difference is that its debt is held in Japanese yen so it can never be insolvent, while Senegal’s is denominated in foreign currency.

So how did we get here? Well, since 1967 we have been in a situation of structural trade deficit. If you look at the ‘Plan Senegal Emergent’, the main economic blueprint of the current government, it’s just a list of infrastructure projects. It has mainly benefited French companies. In 2019 our imports were twice the value of our exports and our trade deficit was more than 10 per cent of GDP.

We have to break with the idea that we ‘lack money’. Any country that issues a sovereign currency could finance projects based on resources it has available

The only way to finance that is through remittances, foreign direct investment or issuing debt in foreign currency – through instruments like Eurobonds.

In 2018 we issued two Eurobonds. The interest rate is set based on an evaluation of credit risk by investment banks. For one of the bonds valued at $1 billion, the rate is 6.75 per cent. So over 30 years, we will end up paying back twice as much. We pay the current debt by issuing new debt. Since independence, that has been the development model of Senegal. It’s a classic Ponzi scheme.

Can you tell us more about the economic model pursued by the current government?

Their model is defined by a quest for foreign exchange. Our government’s logic is that they ‘lack funding’, so they have to make the country attractive for foreign investors and capital. And they do that through trade deals with the EU, or by doing business with China.

We have government bodies like the Agency for the Promotion of Investment (APIX) whose sole job is to attract foreign investment. This is their only optic; they do not factor in ecological damage, or the consequences of foreign investment on the balance of payments over the long term.

The government is not interested in the consequences for health, jobs, or the environment. They say through this agreement they will receive, say, $1 million from the European Union and ‘this will help us to address this or that’. That is pure, short-termist financial reasoning. And for me this is anti-development and anti-people. But that’s how they function.

What pressures do Western trading partners exert on government decisions?

The European Union, Russia and China all want access to products like our fish and other seafood. And, generally, to secure that access, they make trade agreements that are not negotiated in a fair, democratic and transparent way. Often you will read in the newspapers that latest deal is a scandal because the actors who work in this sector were not consulted, or are not happy.

France has always been our main trading partner but it is in decline, not in volume but in share. China has more and more presence. The French government uses political levers to get access for its companies like Total Energies [formerly Total]. They were granted a licence to explore our oil and gas reserves when they weren’t even included in the tender. Our oil sector minister resigned in protest.

With the war in Ukraine and the EU’s will to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, there is a kind of ‘scramble’ towards the African continent in order to secure oil and gas supplies, as well as energies such as green hydrogen. German chancellor Olaf Scholz negotiated gas deals with our president Macky Sall during a recent visit to Senegal.

Would you say neoliberal orthodoxy is the dominant philosophy in the finance sector in Senegal?

Yes. The guys in APIX are people who want to please the World Bank, the French or European development agencies. They seem credible: the language, the clothes they wear. They want to be perceived as good managers because at some point, they might go on to work as a trade negotiator, or for the World Bank.

I see this as a conflict of interest. Most of the people who serve as prime ministers or ministers of finance come from global financial circles – and they will never go against the interests of global finance.

In 2020 Benin’s finance minister argued against the cancellation of African countries’ external debt. That’s the way those people think: they have to format our countries in a way that will be beneficial to foreign investment. Usually, they only attract investments that are extractivist in contrast with foreign investment that could be ‘developmental’.

How can Senegal reduce reliance on Western trading partners?

One solution would be to negotiate as a block. But this has proved difficult with the divide-and-rule strategy used by Western powers. Since 2000, the EU worked hard to sign Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) – trade liberalization agreements – with West Africa. Nigeria has been the main block to that while Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have separately negotiated interim agreements.

As a ‘Least Developed Country’ Senegal is not obliged to sign EPAs. Studies by Senegalese trade experts show that we will lose out. But we have signed them anyway, since the EU applies pressure and our president, Macky Sall, is on good terms with the EU. He is a loyal ally of Western interests.

What alternative economic models do you see emerging?

We have to be self-reliant and go for an anti-capitalist framework. That doesn’t mean autarky, it means renegotiating relationships in a way that benefits the people.

This model will have to be invented by trial and error. Sudan, for example, after its foreign exchange crisis in 2018, moved to increase its agricultural productivity because it could no longer buy imported food.

Financial independence is paramount, but it’s difficult to achieve under capitalism. If we want more sustainable and prosperous societies, we have to break with the idea that we ‘lack money’. Any country that issues a sovereign currency could finance projects based on resources it has available locally – that’s basic Modern Monetary Theory, and it’s a powerful idea.

What gives you hope for change?

There have been some shifts, especially in Francophone countries. Our presidents used to act like French governors but this is starting to shift. And I do see a positive desire for emancipation. African youth are no longer happy with what is on offer. They want jobs… Past a certain point they will no longer be satisfied with what is currently available.

But people have to broaden their focus from being simply ‘anti-colonial’ to understand how capitalism works. What we are experiencing in Africa can no longer be described as neo-colonialism – that’s an outdated term. For me, we’re living in an era of globalism. It’s the abstract logic of capital that prevails.

Our situation is like colonialism without a colonizer. This implies that this invisible colonial logic can be implemented by Africans. This trend is vicious – I call it Afro-liberalism.

To develop new visions of development and ecology, we will need to build strong coalitions to have influence over our politics. This is possible: it depends on good leadership and a good context.


Tears for fears

Scraps of torched cars left in Shiv Vihar from the 2020 Delhi riots.
Credit: Banswalhemant

Communal violence is rarely out of the headlines in India. In the period 11-20 April, which coincided with two major Hindu festivals – Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti – there were clashes between Hindus and Muslims in several states. These days, Hindu hardliners treat major festivals as a spur to bait Muslims. The fighting could have been organic or orchestrated, but only one community paid the price: Muslims.

After one such confrontation on 11 April in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, local authorities demolished mostly Muslim-owned properties and homes – alleging their involvement in the riot. On 16 April, during a Hanuman Jayanti procession, Hindus and Muslims reportedly came to blows again in Jahangirpuri, Delhi. A few days later, the authorities entered the area with excavators to demolish what they called ‘illegal encroachments’ – otherwise known as Muslim homes and businesses. Amnesty International said the demolitions were carried out without any notice or ‘other due process requirements’. A Supreme Court order did not stop the bulldozers.

Communal clashes remain a blot on our cumbersome, diverse and multicultural democracy. Indian politicians down the ages have exploited the Hindu-Muslim binary for political gain – but ever since 2014, when the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in a landslide victory, it has been weaponized to an unprecedented degree.

What is new is not the communal clashes – but their frequency and predictability, especially surrounding Hindu festivals. Never before has the state been so conspicuous in its silence and indirect complicity. This violence is purposeful, serving to create and sustain a culture of fear – of each other and, for Muslims and their allies, of the state. It is also a means of channelling and fanning the anger of the ordinary Indian – both Hindu and Muslim. This anger is now on autopilot.

India is now ruled by strongman politicians who are experts at exploiting the country’s various religious and caste-based triggers by creating uncertainties and anxieties. Research has shown that such conditions can cause people to become radical in their religious beliefs – more pronounced among those who ‘felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life’.

Ordinary citizens have been hopeless about their lives for decades; they have been failed by successive governments. They were sitting ducks to this majoritarian indoctrination. How else would you explain its widespread acceptance?

The demolitions and various other controversies (for example, threats to mass rape Muslim women made by a Hindu ‘seer’), all point towards 2024, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek to renew his mandate. By that time, the administration will seek to muddle the memory of the deadly second wave of Covid-19 that killed thousands with religious polarization and chaos. The BJP’s vote share has been known to go up when riots precede an election year. Following the government’s monumental failure in handling the second wave, the PM’s popularity took a beating. Since April, it’s soaring again.

We know what to expect for the next two years – more organized anger and calculated chaos.


Rivers: holy waters

Hindu women offer prayers to the sun god by venturing into the foam-coated waters of the Yamuna River (a major tributary of the Ganges) in New Delhi, India. The river is responsible for 70 per cent of the city’s water supply but is severely polluted at this stretch. Recently city authorities have taken to deploying blowers to push back the foam from the banks during festivals, so that the faithful can take a holy dip. ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Gingerly, I took my feet out of my slippers and felt them squelch into the riverside mud. Then, leaning over into the flow as far as I could, I upended the plastic bag so that its contents tipped out. Thus a part of my mother’s ashes landed into the river (along with a flutter of pink rose petals), according to Hindu custom, satisfying the wish of those who had cared for her that her soul would now gain peace.

The irony of this ritual was not lost on me – my mother was a Christian (though shaky in her belief later in life) and had always had a great fear of open water due to never having learnt to swim. What peace the immersion of her ashes brought was surely for those left behind. We kept a portion of her remains and buried them in her sister’s grave.

The sanctifying touch of river waters is a belief that runs deep in Hindu spirituality. I encountered it many times during my childhood in India. Going on a school trip to the famous temple at Omkareshwar, an island in the Narmada, I remember being brought a bucket of water straight from the holy river to drink. Eyeing the greyish particles and minuscule creatures moving about inside I chose to go thirsty. Awaiting a ferry crossing at Patna, over the holiest of rivers for Hindus, the Ganges, I witnessed throngs of devotees taking a dip in its brown waters, fringed with litter.

Even for someone like me, not inclined to religious devotion, there remains a strong, primitive pull associated with rivers. In times of mental agitation I find myself walking by the Nieuwe Maas in my home city of Rotterdam, watching the tugs and leisure boats move across it, and feeling my mind’s knots unravel a little.

Anyone who has witnessed the communion of all forms of life at the river bank, in a nature documentary or first-hand, will realize why the function of rivers can best be described as ‘life support’.

Available surface freshwater (rivers, lakes and swamps) is only an estimated 0.3 per cent of all the water on our planet, more than 99 per cent of which is unusable by humans and numerous other species. Yet it forms the habitat for over 140,000 described species (and however many more as yet unrecorded), including 55 per cent of all fish species. Move into the wetlands associated with the world’s rivers and a staggering 40 per cent of all the world’s species either live or breed there. As for humans, a quarter of the world’s people depend on rivers for that most basic necessity, drinking water. A similar proportion of food production is reliant on irrigation from this source – to say nothing of the renowned fertility of floodplains that are our breadbaskets. Rivers truly are life, not just in any sentimental sense, and that is why traditional cultures have viewed them as sacred.

Dubious offerings

Yet reverence is not enough. A confluence of factors involving human influence is choking and drying out these arteries. Even the Ganges, known affectionately as Ganga Mata in India (or Mother Goddess Ganga), is not immune. Its basin (the area it drains through), a stretch of more than 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, is the most densely populated in the world, supporting between 400 and 650 million people depending on different estimates. 

In its upper reaches the Ganges faces a series of blocks by dams. Intensive agriculture (among other uses) is robbing the river of groundwater and weakening its flow, especially downstream. And then there’s pollution. At Kanpur, just one urban node on its journey, according to environmental activist Rakesh Jaiswal 150 million litres of stinking untreated grey-green raw sewage empties into the water every day. Then there are the chemicals and other effluent from tanneries, hospitals, textile mills, and agricultural runoff along the way. Even the estimated 1,000 tonnes of flowers offered daily to the river by the devout leach pesticides. Plastic debris floats along, challenging the hundreds of groups trying to fish it back out. And then there are the human ashes and half-burned corpses in their thousands, consigned to the holy waters each day. There is even a project to deploy flesh-eating turtles to tackle the latter. To top it all, climate change has been doing its thing – causing glaciers at the river’s head to retreat, while unpredictable monsoons and heatwaves also take their toll on water levels.

Rivers truly are life, not just in any sentimental sense, and that is why traditional cultures have viewed them as sacred

For the faithful, the Ganga will heal itself – indeed there is some foundation to the belief in its self-purifying properties, as the river has been known historically to host bacteria-munching viruses. But today it is also a brew of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and no virus could tackle the chemical effluents befouling it.

Cleaning up the Ganga is a beloved mantra of politicians – and the current hardline Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no different. But a significant chunk of what has been spent of the $3 billion budget pledged to the task has allegedly been lost to corruption. When a lower court granted the river ‘legal personhood’ status, the Supreme Court reversed the decision as unenforceable. True, as without good governance, such protection remains gestural. Citizens’ projects have been springing up to do their bit in myriad ways, but they can barely scratch the surface considering the scale of the task. Real change will only come by preventing waste from entering the river in the first place and environmentally informed stewardship of its waters.

At Chattogram, Bangladesh, kids take to the water in the Karnaphuli as if it were a part of them. IHSAAN EESA/ALAMY

Entitled mindset

Far from this vision, a sense of mastery came to dominate thinking about the use of river waters in the 20th century and often still persists among the powers that be. The trouble with resources that sustain us is the tendency to view them as being there to be exploited, a goose-that-lays-golden-eggs scenario. It’s a mindset usually completely at odds with the Indigenous and traditional peoples of the world whose livelihoods and cultural traditions are most intricately enmeshed with rivers, and who know that balance and respect are key.

Polluted, diverted, fragmented, most rivers today are threatened by human activity in the name of progress. Climate change is leading to more extreme drought and floods; overuse of their waters drying them up. We concrete over floodplains making them lose their ability to recharge groundwater (which feeds into rivers), and then bemoan the water scarcity that can result. A particularly pernicious symptom of this worldview has been the construction of big dams which have chopped up the flow of two-thirds of the world’s rivers. Those that remain free-flowing are mainly in areas of sparse human habitation.

Legions of dam refugees - largely Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities - have been economically, culturally and psychologically devastated

In the US a great frenzy of riverine replumbing via mega-dams took place in the early 20th century, often with little consideration for whether they were actually needed, let alone for their devastating environmental consequences. After the Second World War, dam technology was actively promoted around the world by the US State Department in order to build alliances and maintain geopolitical influence against the Soviet Union. In newly independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru called dams ‘the temples of modern India’. As author Arundhati Roy puts it: ‘Dam-building grew to be equated with Nation-building. …Not only did they build new dams and new irrigation systems, they took control of small, traditional systems that had been managed by village communities for thousands of years, and allowed them to atrophy.’

Today the fallout of our dammed rivers is much better known. Dams have devastated river ecosystems, particularly migratory fish populations. The first dam to be constructed on a previously free-flowing river can result in the loss of 40 per cent of aquatic species.

Beyond the waterfront, land species are affected by habitat disruption too – proposed projects in Guinea and Indonesia could be devastating for endangered chimpanzees and orangutans.

Dam reservoirs hold back much of the silt a river would normally deposit along its course, depriving the basin of the formation of fertile soil. They affect the seasonal pulse and flow of rivers, and some, like the Mekong, that have multiple major dams have become severely depleted in their lower courses, affecting rice growing and other crops. Waters in reservoirs often become increasingly deoxygenated affecting overall quality when released into the river. Nutrients from fertilizers, animal farm runoffs and other pollutants pile up and cause toxic algal blooms. And on it goes… No wonder that Roy called dams 20th century ‘emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival’.

On the delivery front it’s usually a case of broken promises: time-scales stretch out, the usual gigantic costs are overrun (by an average of 96 per cent according to one study), they are sites of corruption and profiteering and often fail to achieve the aimed for levels of energy generation.

And what of the people in the way? In 2000, when the World Commission on Dams disbanded, it said dams had forced some 40-80 million people from their lands during the course of the 20th century, adding: ‘Legions of dam refugees – largely Indigenous, tribal and peasant communities – have been economically, culturally and psychologically devastated.’ It’s a devastation that continues. Fernanda Purrán, a Mapuche activist living in the Biobío River basin, Chile, where a series of hydroelectric projects have gone up since the 1990s, made this observation: ‘We have been enduring the damage and ecocide… and the suffering that our communities and our culture have experienced. They have taken away our right to be a free people, to be an Indigenous people, with the ability to live our worldview and our culture freely.’

Despite this widely known and sorry history, despite active movements to decommission and take down existing dams (239 smaller scale dams and weirs were removed in 2021 across Europe), despite project after project delayed or ultimately halted due to potential environmental impacts, new hydropower projects continue to be proposed for the Global South.

Collecting sand from the Ubangi River, Central African Republic, for use in the construction industry. A diver has to scoop it up from the river bed into a bucket for it to be pulled up by a colleague on the boat. Most sand extraction elsewhere is mechanized and operates on a far larger scale. WILLIAM DANIELS/PANOS

Grand designs

Why is this happening? An interesting mix of factors is at play. The lure of the prestige project in national narratives cannot be underestimated – all kinds of environmentally crazy river engineering ‘solutions’, not just dams, keeping being proposed. They feed into a spurious narrative of modernity. But there is also an active push by the hydropower industry, which is losing ground to other renewables, to posit big projects as clean and green. They’ve got one eye on lucrative sources of funding through international pathways such as the Clean Development Mechanism; the other is on a share of post-Covid-19 recovery funds. Two Chinese state-owned corporations, Powerchina Resources and China Three Gorges Corp, account for half of all dams under construction today, playing their role in the country’s push for economic dominance through the Belt and Road Initiative.7

To make concrete the issues at play around big hydropower, consider the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Grand Inga project. It’s currently the world’s most ambitious (if it gets going), with an estimated total bill of $80 billion (if funding gets raised), to expand the current two dams on the mighty Congo River, the deepest in the world, by a further five.

I speak with Siziwe Mota, the Africa Program director of International Rivers, an NGO that works to protect rivers and the rights of communities dependant on them. She points to the people already displaced by the extant dams that are currently in disrepair and performing below capacity: ‘People have not been compensated, they live in dire, dire straits, they don’t have access to energy, they don’t have jobs, they were literally moved [out of the way].’ Inga 3, the proposed next stage, could displace 10,000 more.

Mota outlines the chequered history of the scheme, starting with South Africa’s agreement with DRC to purchase the generated power, while ‘90 per cent of the DRC’s citizens lack energy access’. Then the scramble for partners and funds, with the World Bank pulling out in 2016 due to governance concerns, China Three Gorges and the Spanish giant ACS entering the fray as a consortium and subsequently withdrawing. The new kid on the block is Australian mining-billionaire Andrew Forrest, whose company Fortescue Futures Industry (FFI) aims to take on the project (and is already doing ‘pre-consultation’ in the community) despite having ‘no previous expertise in dam building’. Their vision revolves around the current buzz about green hydrogen, that is hydrogen for use as fuel produced by splitting water using clean energy. Mota thinks that FFI would aim to export this green hydrogen to European and other international markets.

But in this instance the notion of producing green hydrogen is a non-starter because there is no way that hydropower, renewable though it may be, can be considered green. Mota calls it ‘absolute nonsense’. This is because dams built in the tropics produce vast emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, equivalent to fossil fuel plants, as vegetation decomposes in the warmer waters of their reservoirs. Indeed, in their first decade, such hydropower projects could have emissions that are worse than coal-fired plants.

Then there is the small matter of the Congo Plume, a 30,000-square-kilometre fan on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, produced by the river’s sediment. It’s rich in phytoplankton which sequester carbon when they die, making it a carbon sink of global importance. Blocking sediment with dams here is really not a bright idea. There’s also a threat to the 700 fish species of the Congo River, including several found here and nowhere else.7

With funds still to be drummed up and the presidency currently unresponsive to FFI’s overtures, plans for furthering Grand Inga may not be as solid as the corporation would like them to be. Mota cannot help but point out a juicy irony: ‘Andrew Forrest is a Patron of Nature for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is the very same person who’s in mining and wants to go ahead and construct this project. I don’t know how he reconciles the work he does with his position as Patron of Nature.’

A data deep-dive on the arteries of life. 
Click here for a full-sized fact spread.


Toboyi Mokili, a coalition of DRC community groups supported by International Rivers, have been pushing back against the proposed project for 10 years. The time-scale is somewhat typical of such struggles, but affected communities cannot go quietly when so much is at stake. Around the world river defenders are organizing community resistance, petitioning governments, filing legal suits, engaging with powerful interests to try and change disastrous plans, and, increasingly, joining hands with similar struggles in other countries to share knowledge and widen the circle of concern. The price to be paid can be high; in the last two decades over 100 activists were murdered for their involvement in campaigns against dams, including Berta Cáceres, the Honduran Indigenous activist who was killed in 2016 after years of vicious intimidation. She told an interviewer in 2013: ‘I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the sacred river and I am separated from my children because of the threats. I cannot live in peace; I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But I refuse to go into exile.’

Environmental violence often translates into violence against human beings. Take the under-reported situation of mining sand from riverbanks and beds, billions of tonnes of it a year, which is so pervaded with skullduggery that the nexus of business interests, politicians and police taking their cut are often referred to as a ‘mafia’. In India, over 400 people have died since 2020 in incidents related to sandmining – many in accidents such as falling into open pits or being run over by trucks, but there have also been killings of journalists and environmental activists. The wider violence is what happens along the courses of heavily mined rivers. Banks and riverbeds get destabilized, affecting natural flows; the river starts changing its course, increasing the likelihood of flooding, as experienced in the state of Kerala. In coastal regions riverbanks begin to crumble and seawater rushes in. Stripping sand also causes water tables to drop – a serious problem in a populous water-stressed country.

By now it is evident that rivers need to flow in as natural a form as possible in order for life to flourish. That they are a precious resource is unquestionable; that they are over-exploited even less in doubt. To even attempt to address the problems that beset them requires a balancing act between different demands: for energy, for agriculture, for healthy ecosystems, for the people along their banks who are utterly dependent on them. And, increasingly, river advocacy and other conservation organizations are urging a vision of governance that starts from the deep knowledge of Indigenous and traditional groups who have lived symbiotically with the waters that sustain them. They are usually the last participants invited to the table, if at all.

We need more reliable, comparable data on the world’s rivers, we need transparent, participatory governance, we need international agreements on how they are treated and the sharing of their waters, but above all we need these things to be informed by humility and a true reverence for the life that rivers sustain.

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