EPW    Editorial October 28, 2000 

Missed Opportunity

“The dam is neither a nuclear establishment nor a polluting  industry. The construction of a dam undoubtedly would  result in the change of environment but it will not be correct to presume that the construction of a large dam like the Sardar Sarovar will result in ecological disaster. India has experience of over 40 years in the construction of dams. The experience does not show that construction of a large dam is not cost effective or leads to ecological or environmental degradation. On the contrary there has been ecological upgradation with the construction of large dams. What is the impact on environment with the construction of a dam is well-known in India...”

In a judgment that has shaken people’s movements here as well as in the rest of the world, the Supreme Court has cleared the construction of the Sardar Sarovar project, reiterating and thus making right a short-handed and hasty decision that was taken 14 years ago. And yet it avers that it has confined itself to the defined role of the judiciary in dealing with matters falling within the jurisdiction of the executive: assuming that the executive acts in the best interests of all people, it is not the role of the judiciary to interfere with public policy. “For any project which is approved after due deliberation the court should refrain from being asked to review the decision just because a petitioner in filing a PIL alleges that such a decision should not have been taken because an opposite view against the undertaking of the project, which view may have been considered by the government, is possible.”

It is not so much the outcome of the judgment as the manner in which the court has arrived at the decision and the terms in which it is couched that have prompted wide attention. The dissenting judgment of justice Bharucha only serves to underline these aspects. The majority judgment signed by justices Kirpal and Anand appears to be committed to the view that large dams are a necessary adjunct of development and that while they may damage the environment at one level, they in fact enhance and upgrade the ecological status of another region. The issue is therefore to mitigate the negative effects. Further, it has from the outset regarded the petitioner as being ‘anti-dam’ and the petition as having been prompted not by concern for the displaced tribal population but by its ideological stand against large dams. Finally, it has taken upon itself to define the contours of progress for tribal populations.

In its consideration of the process by which the environmental clearance was granted to the project, it has glossed over the fact that the concerned ministries themselves had submitted that there was insufficient data with regard to the environmental impact – on biodiversity, on wildlife, on ecology, on salinity, etc – of the project to allow for the clearance to be given. Both ministries had recommended to the prime minister that these baseline studies – which would need six months to three years to complete – needed to be undertaken before an assessment could be made, but that given the urgency in terms of the huge financial outlays locked up and other administrative reasons, such clearance could be granted while the studies were being undertaken. Justice Bharucha’s dissenting voice points to the fact that the clearance was finally granted by the prime minister acting on the information from the ministries. Curiously, all parties concerned appear to have been quite confident that the studies would not reveal any information which might necessitate the withdrawal of the clearance given. In sum, the studies by definition became only of academic interest and were either not undertaken at all or were hastily and unscientifically conducted.

It is of serious import that the majority judgment has taken the view that it has of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. For one, whatever its assessment of the petitioner, what has it to do with the petition? To imply that the NBA is some sort of irrational ‘obstructor’ of progress – in this case of large dams – with no concern for the displaced hardly does justice to the movement’s activities and the worldwide influence it has had on the philosophy of development programmes. The NBA’s anti-large dam stand today comes from a long and close association with the people of the region and well-organised inquiry into the pros and cons of large dams. There can be hardly any doubt that it has not only been instrumental in generating rethinking on a wide gamut of development-related issues but has against heavy odds mobilised the dispossessed and the powerless in the Narmada valley through a painstaking process of information dissemination. The popular upsurge in the valley against the dam is, in the current idiom, knowledge-based, an informed protest; the movement’s ideological content in the development debate is also rooted in research, documentation and wide-ranging debate.

The court’s view of progress and modernisation stands in sharp contrast. Its concern for the dispossessed tribal population is spelt out thus: “The displacement of the tribals and other persons would not per se result in the violation of their fundamental rights or other rights... At the rehabilitation sites they will have more and better amenities than which they enjoyed in their tribal hamlets... the gradual assimilation in the mainstream of the society will lead to betterment and progress.” The court has missed an important moment in its evolutionary history when it could have extended the reach of the justice system. It could have paved the way to establishing necessary structures and mechanisms through which public opinion may be sought and taken into cognisance at the planning stage of large infrastructure projects rather than have protest movements gather momentum over the years and stall projects. But led by its particular vision of development, it has now established the ground for confrontationist actions which can only delay, not enhance, development.

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