DECCAN HERALD Sunday, December 10, 2000

Viva la Resistance!

GREEN TALK by Bittu Sahgal

Environmental and human rights groups are very powerful forces. They breathe life and vision in tired and exploited communities whose resources - forests, lakes, rivers,coasts -- are being stolen from under their very eyes.

Has the Narmada battle been lost? No it has not! Yes, the Supreme Court let the nation down because it should have stood like a bulwark against the forces of destruction. But even a cursory look at the awakening across the nation, particularly among young Indians who have the largest stake in our nation's ecological stability, reveals that the lessons taught by the people of the Narmada are alive and well and working for India.

We are at a cusp. The industrial revolution is winding down and the information revolution is on the rise. But there are diehards in our midst -- Neanderthals some may say -- who refuse to give up their outdated, and destructive ways. These powerful, myopic warlords continue to rely on heavy, polluting, destructive industry as a source of profit, even as the most creative minds in the world point to better, safer, more reliable income sources. These include alternative energy production, organic food farms, restoration and re-amelioration of damaged lands and polluted water sources, protection and natural regeneration of watersheds and the resurrection of traditional methods of harvesting wild foods including the fish in our seas, rivers and lakes.

I talk to thousands of young Indians each year about the advantages of flowing with nature's tide. One million such bright future-citizens signed an appeal addressed to the elder generation to "Save the Tiger". In the process of reaching the message about the endangered status of the tiger to them, we were able to explain to them the consequences of mining, damming or otherwise destroying forests, or polluting water sources.

Thousands responded with a simple question: If elders know that what they are doing is bad, then why are they still damaging nature? It's a good question and one that I suggest the largest NGOs and activists should try to answer. But to do this, they too will need to spend at least some of their precious time talking with children. If they do this, I predict that two immediate benefits will emerge. First, a touch of positivism will be infused in the minds and hearts of the battle-weary, because children have a powerful capacity to heal with innocence. Secondly, seeds of awareness and future renewal will be planted in the next generation from which new blood will emerge to revitalise mass movements.

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the worldis not just a catchy saying. It is a very hard reality that has a better chance of winning peace and ecological sanity for the world than all the United Nations conferences and the millions of dollars spent on global travel by messiahs. Which brings us to the issue of the task ahead of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Here is what they must now do.

While one set of activists will obviously have to continue fighting in the threatened valley for the rights of the people, another set, their supporters, must start uniting national groups and communities. The NBA and the NAPM have a destiny to fulfill outside the Narmada Valley. This involves fighting financially and ecologically ill-advised large dam projects that are still on the drawing board, rather than only those where the bulldozers are already in place.

In the past two years some of us have been fighting lone battles against large dams that have not yet been built. We need technical and intellectual support from experienced veterans who have fought large dam lobbies for decades. We also need public-spirited activists who can breathe life and vision in tired and exploited communities whose resources - forests, lakes, rivers, coasts -- are being stolen from under their very eyes.

The truth is that environmental and human rights groups are very powerful forces. But we are not united. Wildlife groups, for instance, won a key battle against the Rs. 1,100 crore Chikaldhara Pumped Storage Project in Vidarbha, Maharashtra that would have drowned key tiger forests in the Tapi River catchment vicinity. But even as this battle was won, another emerged less than 50 kms. away in the shape and form of the Tapi Stage II Hydroelectric Project. The project is only on the drawing board. But already trees are being marked for cutting. Ideally we need someone with the gift of the fight to live in Dharni for the next two years to organise resistance against the dam and to interact with local authorities to convince them of the wisdom of choosing better alternatives. I hope and expect that the NBA will be able to inspire people to do this job.

There are very few groups watchdogging remote forests where human population are thin, or non-existent. Wildlife and nature conservation groups are among such people. In a sense, we are the nation's scouts. We see danger long before the rest do. But we are not strong enough to counter the threats on our own. For this we need the organised strength and vision of principled groups, who are willing to sink minor differences to unite against a larger enemy. The NBA could unite such groups.

It is precisely because we did not have this kind of support that we lost a very vital battle to stop the Turial Hydroelectric Project in Mizoram. This dam project went ahead because it threatened "only" a few million trees and a mere handful of villages. No one therefore to oppose it. Buoyed by their success in pushing the lucrative project through (with Japanese loans) NEEPCO (a government organisation with umbilical links to all private dam builders) is now poised to build 14 new hydroelectric projects in the Northeast. The timber that will be extracted from the submergence zones and road building is greater than most project costs. Local politicians and even most innocent communities have been "convinced" that such dams are in their best interests. Millions of years of evolution and scores of endangered species will be wiped out. We have no activists on the ground to fight them.

I have been trying with little success for 18 months to draw the focus of larger groups to these battles. Clearly we have a biodiversity holocaust on our hands if the government is allowed to go ahead with its lethal plans to dam the Northeast and India will never quite recover from the ecologicaltrauma. To my mind, the Northeast is a test for the hundreds of farsighted people who have been a part of the Narmada struggle. If these dams are built, the sacrifices made by thousands of people over decades in the Narmada valley will come to naught. No lessons will have been learned. No development directions will have been changed. Whatever be the outcome of the Sardar Sarovar Project, we must, at the very least, find the means to plant flags of resistance in every community that is threatened by proposed large dams in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Such flags need be no more than a couple of knowledgeable humanbeings, willing to live with locals and bring to their attention:n The adverse effect of large damsn The need for them to unite against the destruction of their resourcesn The worldwide support for such resistance and n The better options available to solve their water problems.

Threatened valleys across India need to be swamped by such "resistance" movements. Investing resources here makes good strategic sense, because project promoters like Neepco do not visit the sites they want to drown, except to survey them. They have no links with local communities. They prefer instead to camp in Delhi where they wine and dine MPs, bureaucrats and shady NGOs.

In the Northeast we desperately need a network of people who can meet villagers, students, sensitive bureaucrats, journalists and other public opinion leaders. We need visionaries who can fire the imagination of locals and urge them to choose better options than lethal large dams. The same holds true for dozens of places in India, including Karnataka, where large dams in the Dandeli region are going to drown some of the world's finest Western Ghats forests. The dam builders are cutting through these areas like hot knives through butter because of a lack of local opposition.

Prevention is better than cure. Bringing this truism to the fore on the issue of large dams is the destiny of the NBA and other mass movements who must reserve at least some of their valuable blood, sweat and purpose on warding off disaster before it strikes.

Viva la Resistance!

(Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Magazine)

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