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|October 23, 2002||
The Narmada dammedI must confess that I have only followed the Narmada Bachao Andolan's campaign against the Sardar Sarovar project in a desultory manner. Opinions about the dam have always been so strongly polarised that it is impossible to take a reasoned stand unless one follows the river and devotes time to speak to the dam-affected people as well as the water-starved masses of Gujarat. In the process, I simply switched off.
In any case, the NBA was not short of support. Medha Patkar is an internationally acclaimed activist whose struggle has been extensively documented by the world media and the Indian press. When celebrity writer Arundhati Roy joined her, she brought along a fresh ballast of international publicity for the agitation --- her own brilliant, incisive, and vitriolic writing. Yet, opposition to the NBA also seemed to grow stronger in Gujarat.
But none of us realised how alienated the NBA had become until, charged by the post-Godhra mayhem and rioting, a mob in Ahmedabad tried to beat up Medha Patkar right inside the Sabarmati Ashram. What is worse, even the saner voices in Gujarat, people like renowned dancer Mallika Sarabhai, who was appealing for calm and a return to sanity, were so determined to keep a distance from Ms Patkar that she even claimed that Ms Patkar was not invited to the prayer meeting (as though that was relevant).
Many of us were outraged at Ms Sarabhai's attitude. But one had to concede that the NBA aroused such extreme passions and sentiments in Gujarat that it left little room for an independent or considered viewpoint.
The issue was no longer about whether relief and rehabilitation (R&R) promises for the dam-affected oustees were fulfilled, the merits and demerits of large dams, or the imperatives of development versus environmental concerns. The issue was exclusively about whether you supported the NBA or opposed it.
But Dilip D'Souza, my fellow columnist on rediff.com, has bravely tried to do just that in his recently released book: 'The Narmada Dammed --- An Inquiry Into the Politics of Development'.
The book is an extremely readable and independent assessment of the issue. Independent in the sense that he has kept the NBA almost entirely out of the book and has chosen to make a first-hand assessment of the entire issue. He has read all the important documents, ferreted out several contradictory claims and misstatements in published brochures about the dam, and travelled the length of the river meeting people who are affected by the dam and even those who are eagerly waiting for the Narmada waters to irrigate their parched lands.
Obviously, this is not the first book or in-depth study on the Narmada dams. In fact, instead of presenting us with the last word on the subject, D'Souza has attempted to show how the government has constantly fudged facts, changed its stance, faked statistics, and been callously lackadaisical about even assessing the number of families that will be affected by the dam. All this was done in the name of development.
He tells us how the Sardar Sarovar dam had, for the first time, outlined a comprehensive relief and rehabilitation programme for the dam-affected people. This included allocation of two hectares of land each for the oustees, including landless agricultural labour, plus a plot for housing, grant for ploughing fields, livestock, roofing, insurance, transport, as well as community benefits such as roads, primary school, health centre, village pond, electricity, wells, park, dispensaries, and more. But in reality, these have turned out to be paper promises.
More importantly, his close-up encounters with the people on both sides of the debate provide the reader the closest substitute to a first-hand visit. The book shows how aggressive propaganda that projected the dam as the "lifeline" of Gujarat allowed the government to gloss over crucial facts. For instance:
The report showed how the dam could still be built by lowering its height and keeping water allocation to Gujarat constant, reducing the extent of displacement and mitigating post-dam problems by imposing strict conditions on the use of water, such as the compulsory creation of a permanent vegetative cover on a third of all newly irrigated land.
One wishes the book had explored why this compromise formula was never discussed. But that would have entailed a far more detailed analysis of the NBA's role, which the author was obviously keen to avoid. The decision to keep the NBA largely out of the book is certainly its strength (given the extreme polarisation of views on the Narmada), but it is also a weakness.
It is a strength because it allows the reader a view that is uncluttered with pro- and anti-dam rhetoric. But it is a weakness, because the NBA's failure has serious implications for the future of NGO-led protests in the country.
The NBA is a large, well-funded and organised group that enjoyed unusually high media support from around the world. Why, then, did it alienate the people of Gujarat to the point of attracting violent opposition? How did a set of notoriously corrupt politicians carry more weight with the people? Was it merely the people's callous disregard for the poor tribals of Madhya Pradesh, whose lands would be submerged? Or was it because the NBA was overconfident and uncompromising?
Like most activists, D'Souza seems reluctant to pass judgement on the NBA, apart from saying that it probably painted itself in a corner by shifting its focus from R&R to an opposition to large dams. So, the book leaves us wondering if this is going to be the fate of all protests in India. Whether it was Enron or Narmada, it is the neta-babu cabal that emerged victorious by deploying an arsenal of lofty slogans to cover up their double speak, fudged facts, and outright lies. More importantly, in both cases they even had the judiciary on their side. And that portends ill for the future of this country.
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