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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

Interlinking the unwitting

April 04, 2003

The popular imagination of the middle and upper classes often supports large infrastructure projects, while at the same time these are bitterly opposed by many poor communities. These initiatives range from modest city-specific plans such as flyovers and airport expansion plans, to large ones with significant statewide or regional impacts, such as the Dabhol power plant or the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada. Local communities and public interest groups have fought these initiatives tooth and nail, but among the chattering classes these battles are seen usually as hurdles along the path to development. Most privileged urban families have little knowledge of the trail of woe that pipes water into their homes, keeps their refrigerators humming, and paves 'their' roads.

Now comes the grandest design yet -- the interlinking of the nation's major river systems -- and the positions are familiar once more. The chairman of the government's Task Force on Rivers, when asked if the plan has been discussed threadbare, replies that the pluses and minuses are yet to be considered, but the benefits clearly outweigh the costs!

The President too has lent his wisdom to the elaborate scheme, but although he has the appearance of scientific scholarship, in this particular instance the science behind his judgement has never been subject to review by peers or scrutiny by stake-holding citizens. And the politics, delving deep into the water security of every region, will be even more challenging.

The early stamps of approval are unfortunate; there are millions of Indians who continue to place touching faith in the goodness of political leadership, despite decades of its obvious failure to improve their lives. The President, I have heard said, is simply too honourable a man to propose a scheme devoid of scientific merit. This offers reassuring hope for government, but unfortunately little else. Indeed, the honourable thing to do would be precisely the opposite of such unexamined endorsement -- to withhold opinion until the plan has clearly demonstrated its scientific, social and economic merits, and considering the enormity of this proposal, included public discourse as well. Instead we find that the visage of statesmanship is used to deny the people's informed choice.

Trusted public servants have an obligation that reaches beyond governance, and into integrity; they must set examples by providing the public with the fullest information available. Which states would have to transfer water out, and which ones would receive water from outside their borders? How much will the required construction cost? How will this cost be borne? Which firms will undertake construction? Will the plan require a revision in crop planting patterns? Will that alter food security? These are not accusative questions, merely direct ones that any government is obliged to consider before the decision is made. Answering them sincerely will reinforce the trust reposed in the administrators.

Instead, we receive an assurance that a scheme whose scientific merits are yet to be fully assessed is nonetheless meritorious. If your doctor provided advice by this standard, you would quickly find a different physician, not only because you doubted his integrity but more importantly because his opinion isn't based on expertise!

This public relations sleight is quite typical. Repeatedly we have seen the claim made that the wisest of decisions are made in the halls of government, but that the public should demand no proof of this. When the Bangalore-Mysore expressway was proposed for construction by a private consortium, for example, it was pointed out thatwidening the existing state highway connecting the two cities would be far more cost-effective and less destructive to local communities than a completely new road. Hundreds of thousands of people stand to be displaced, and countless acres of already diminishing farmland will also be lost. The Reserve Bank of India has recently taken the nearly unprecedented step of investigating the funding of the project. And yet, the government's assurances of propriety are unyielding.

We are told that everything is proper; the alternatives and the costs have been seriously considered, and the opposition is simply standing in the way of development. There is one caveat -- the government also claims that much of its agreement with the consortium proposing to construct the highway, as well as studies based on which clearances were obtained, are all confidential, because the corporate interest of the promoters requires such secrecy!

This should be a red flag to supporters. Perhaps one believes that the larger cities are too congested, and that developing the suburbs is necessary. One may go even further, and insist that some people in outlying areas have to be moved off their lands to accommodate this vision; such dispossession of 'others' wouldn't be new. But whose responsibility is it to demonstrate that this proposal is viable, and that the social and economic costs and benefits have been truly factored in right? The fair answer is that those who support the development must bear the responsibility for demonstrating its usefulness and viability. Anyone who believes in the merit of the proposal must be willing to ask that the decisions be transparent, and that their wisdom be demonstrated.

Political leaders are fully aware that some of citizens' faith in good governance is simply wishful thinking, and they aren't averse to exploiting this. Commissars in the old USSR privately regarded many Western leftists as 'useful idiots' -- people so convinced of the merit of egalitarianism that they were simply blind to the obvious depravity of the Soviet State. There is a fair measure of such naivete in every society, and India is no exception. Unwittingly blind to the excesses of the state outside their lives, or simply deceived by obvious untruths, the privileged classes imagine an India of future stability and prosperity, without pausing to ask if any measure of those can be sustained if they are not broadly shared.

Support for infrastructure projects should make a person more inclined to examine them fully, not become a reason to issue blank checks to developers who then flout the laws. There are only so many trees to fell and rivers to sell. There is only so much land to mine, and oceans to harvest. There are only so many farmers and fishermen who will take their own lives in despair; in time others will seek the lives of those who bring them to this state. The unexamined endorsement of political decisions that favour the already privileged is plain opportunism, but even this cannot survive long. There is no alternative to broad prosperity -- either the progress we seek must include all of us in its promise, or some will simply seek a different destiny separately.

Earlier this year, the Bretton Woods Project reported on an investigation by the World Bank's Inspection Panel looking into a Jharkhand coal mining project. The panel concluded that many of the Bank's policies on resettlement, indigenous communities, supervision, and environmental impacts had been violated. People were kicked off their lands, their property was undervalued, and the resettlement plans bore no resemblance to reality. These are the Bank's findings, not mine! The key thing to remember, post-assessment, is that the process of examining and approving the mining in the first place required various commitments from the company (Coal India). Those existed only on paper; the people who bore the consequences of the plan weren't so much as informed of it prior to its implementation. The little documentation they could scrutinise was technical, and could only be seen in the presence of Coal India officials. And predictably, reviews were declared confidential!

We cannot endure repeated assessments of such failure, especially when warned of it beforehand. Transparency and accountability aren't just questions of fairness; they are equally tests of intelligence among the decision-makers. Scrutiny is needed simply to establish the wisdom of choices. Whether these choices are made in deliberate disregard of the public interest, I leave for you to judge, but if they are made in stupidity alone, then we owe ourselves every opportunity to defeat them. Perhaps the mining was necessary, even a benefit to the local economy, but one negative assessment must lead to greater caution the next time around. Perhaps the Bangalore-Mysore expressway will usher in unprecedented economic growth and the social costs will be small, but a public hearing to discuss this cannot be stage-managed, with the police herding out any opponents. The interlinked rivers may well bring water security that is otherwise unimaginable. Still, that judgement cannot be made in secrecy and haste.

True progress must hold both the state and the developers to the terms of law. Those who argue such development is necessary must be able to demonstrate -- to opponents, but just as importantly to themselves -- that the proposals are legal and suitably compensate all affected parties. As it stands now, many infrastructure initiatives merely rope in the support of the unwitting chattering classes, because at the time of proposal their enthusiasm in a useful cover by which to dismiss all opposition. But once the early furore from vocal opponents passes, those in favour too are discarded. Such supporters assure themselves that their roles in the various scams is no worse than to have misplaced faith in good outcomes. But the decision-makers behind these tragic choices take a different view -- they are certain that the silence of the majority isn't unwitting, but witless. That judgement can only be defeated by involved citizenship.

Ask questions, demand answers. Things will change.

Ashwin Mahesh

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Number of User Comments: 33

Sub: more info' on wrongs of BMICP

Apart from ICICI, HUDCO, Life Insurance Corporation, Punjab National Bank and Bank of India are reported to be financing BMICP. Unit Trust of India and ...

Posted by ESG

Sub: Lots of rhetoric, little substance

Mr. Ashwin Mahesh seems to have expanded his two line theoretical outburst into 50 lines of rhetoric. Totally unwarranted without proper research or arguments being ...

Posted by Yash

Sub: Cluless article!

I am not sure what Ashwin is trying to make out of his verbose analysis. On one had he agrees its out in the open, ...

Posted by Agg

Sub: What's the Problem?

I read the whole article .Apart from the title I do not find anything relevant to the topic. I am curious to know what's Mr ...

Posted by Anil

Sub: Re:Interlinking Indian Rivers

The questions posed are valid. The underlying logic is also valid. The need for the questions to be answered is valid. But one point remains ...

Posted by manav



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