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Rang de Narmada

April 06, 2006

A tragedy happens. Many are devastated by it -- not just the victims and families, but also a large circle of friends and concerned people. Meanwhile, government authorities concerned with the issue downplay the tragedy, try to make out that it was not such a big deal, that it was likely the victims' fault anyway. The circle of concerned people is outraged. This outrageous reaction from the authorities only compounds their sense of loss.

The concerned people decide to hit back using the one weapon that comes to mind: a gun. They are eventually destroyed, but their effort captures the imagination of a whole country. So much so that a later grave injustice sparks protests in which people say they were inspired by those same concerned people who picked up a gun.

So what have I described in those two paragraphs? No prizes for guessing: Rang de Basanti. The MiG pilot killed, the stunned friends and family, the vile defence minister, the execution and the killing, all that. But also the chord touched in countless Indians, depicted in the film but mirrored outside too, in the widespread outrage over Jessica Lal's case.

But what if I painted another canvas, one that those two paragraphs might also describe? Consider:

People find their homes and livelihoods will be destroyed. They see no prospect of reasonable relief in exchange for that sacrifice, this tragedy. Obviously, this devastates a lot of people -- not just the victims, but a large circle of friends and concerned people.

Meanwhile, government authorities concerned with the issue downplay the tragedy, try to make out that it is not so bad, that the victims have actually been compensated for their loss even though they say they have not. The circle of concerned people is outraged. Of course the government reaction only compounds their sense of injustice done.

They decide to hit back using the one weapon that comes to mind: a sit-down protest that becomes a fast.

Ill Medha Patkar arrested, hospitalised

That, though, is where the parallels between the two canvases run out.

And what have I described in these paragraphs? No prizes for guessing, once again: The renewed agitation over the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river. The recent decision to raise the height of the dam, the 35,000 families whose homes will soon vanish, the failure to give them the relief and rehabilitation the Supreme Court of this land itself has ordered, the protest on the streets of our capital, all that.

But also the chord touched in countless Indians... but what am I saying? Has this protest really touched countless Indians?

Maybe it has. Though clearly, some of them have been touched in a somewhat different way. Thus the hatred and anger directed at those who have contested the dam project, the accusations that they want to 'hinder progress' and 'take India back to the Dark Ages' and 'deny Gujaratis water' -- you've heard the phrases. Thus the condescending way in which they are told 'there are no free lunches' (Yoginder Alagh in The Indian Express, March 27).

As if asking dam-builders to merely implement their own announced R&R programmes, as if asking that they merely observe directives from the highest Court in the country, amounts to asking for 'free lunches'.

Yes, I mean our Supreme Court, no less. One of its directives about this project says that construction on the dam can only happen 'pari passu with the implementation of relief and rehabilitation.' (Quote from then Chief Justice B N Kirpal's judgment, 2000).

Meaning, if construction happens, R&R must happen at the same time. Not later, but at the same time. (That's what pari passu means).

With the most recent plans to increase the height of the dam, there are plenty of people who face displacement. Yet they have not been satisfactorily rehabilitated, nor do they feel assured that there will be any satisfactory rehabilitation done for them. In that respect alone, we have here a violation of the Supreme Court's directive.

The Medha Patkar interview

Therefore, invoking no less than that highest Court in the land, construction on that dam must cease -- at least until R&R is satisfactorily done.

Simple, you'd think. Surely this -- which is the fulcrum of the current protest -- cannot be too difficult to understand?

Yet here's how it really goes: Supreme Court directs a course of action (the 'pari passu' order, the insistence on R&R). The party thus directed -- builders of the dam -- does not follow that course. Worse, when reminded, they and their faithful accuse the reminders of making empty and futile objections. And the rest of us, we contrive to pass the blame for this not to that party in question, but to those who will lose their homes. To those who say that prior experience with displacement fills them with fear this time.

So why is it, you think, that Rang de Basanti [Images] stirred so many to raise their voices against the injustice of Jessica Lal [Images], but neither Rang de Basanti nor anything else has stirred too many against the injustice going on right now with 35,000 families in the Narmada Valley?

Maybe it is easier to identify with Jessica than with 35,000 somewhat remote Indian families. But then, is addressing injustice merely a matter of identification?


My blog:Death Ends Fun

Dilip D'Souza

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