EPW    Commentary November 25, 2000

Supreme Court Constructs a Dam

Shiv Visvanathan

I

The final decision of the Supreme Court on the Narmada Dam (NBA vs Union of India, October 10, 2000) has been greeted by a range of emotional reactions. The Gujarat government enacted a carnival by preponing Diwali celebrations by a week and anti-Narmada dam activists felt pushed into the very heart of darkness. People close to Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) talked of a new Dandi march, a satyagraha, and hinted at links between Narmada and WTO.

Personally, I am against large dams. I believe they weaken the scientific imagination, dampen our democratic institutions and blunt our economic sensitivities. But I am equally unhappy with my activist friends who read in every judgment a conspiracy. Of course, the idiocy of the BJP government adds to it. A classic example is Advani’s boast that it represents an achievement to rank with Pokhran. I guess playing the second Sardar Patel must be tiring. History repeats itself twice, first time as greatness, second time as gigantic triviality.

One must not overact. There is a style to the court’s text that we must understand. The two judges often sound like two distinguished members of a club whose eggs have not been boiled right. A trifle irritated, the distinguished judges provide a grumpy finale to the 50 years of the dam. One has to master the logic of the dam as constructed by the court. Remember dams are constructed by courts as well as contractors. Courts create the logic of the dam, scrutinise its categories. Contractors then create it in concrete.

What is the court saying? How is it being said? One needs to grasp this coldly as if one was an anthropologist from Mars with a working knowledge of English. Imagine that you have not met an NBA activist or been subject to an NAPM seminar. In fact these acronyms are a mystery to you. All you have is a badly typed text on what happens to be a manual typewriter. How does the judgment construct the dam? What are the political perspectives, the philosophy, the worldview of judges on the dam? Anthropologically, what does the court reveal about large dams as beliefs and rituals?

In unravelling the text, one immediately senses not BJP illiteracy but a Nehruvian legacy. The history of the Narmada dam becomes a history of its committees. The state becomes miniaturised into a set of expert rituals of expertise. The technical fact and the expert committee mark the early years of the Narmada dam. The court deals with only two events – political controversy between states as actors and the technical facts of engineering. A convergence between the political and the technical produces the ideal system of legitimation. When the technical and the political converge, legitimation crises cease to exist. The chairman of the committee is the eponymous marker of decisions. Straddling them on all is the singular figure of A N Khosla, the expert as hero.

In these reports, Khosla stands like a colossus, a legend, well, a downsized Visveswaraya. Technical facts appear unquestioned and expert committees sacrosanct. The creation myth of the dam begins thus: “In the beginning was the expert committee. The chairman said let Narmada be and it was born. The committee, like God, looked around and felt good.” Creating a legitimation crisis are the upstarts – civil society and protest movements upsetting the Euclidean clarity of the state. Now the sum of the angles of a political triangle is no longer equal to 180. The split, however, is stereotyped. It is state, technocracy, development versus grass roots, marginals, alternatives. The fall creates a dualism which the court must overcome. One must ask is there a third term to bridge the duality. What is missing, is the figure of a dissenting engineer. What if way back, Khosla’s view was only one opinion and a questioned view of the world? Forget the Vergheses and the Roys. Let us summon a quieter and more competent witness, a man who writes simply, professionally and who brings a sanity to the controversy, B D Dhawan.

Dhawan is an economist, an authority on irrigation, a quiet observer of the Narmada debate, content to do his piece in Indian Journal of Political Economy and Economic and Political Weekly. A rare breed – a quiet economist who publishes his essays from small anonymous publishers who don’t even bother to provide one with an index. In Indian Water Resources: Development for Irrigation, (1993) Dhawan provides an economist’s ethnography of a dam. Gently, he evaluates Tata Economic Consultancy Services (TECS) and INTACH studies, explores biases, questions experts, cross-examines footnotes. Dhawan does things ruthlessly and competently. He questions the efficacy of cost benefit analysis (CBA) shows that technical facts are social facts and demonstrates that expertise is not ‘pure reason’.1 One wishes NBA had recruited figures like justice P B Desai and Dhawan on their side. It would have added to its armoury not just rhetoric of poverty but the slide rule and the survey report used with sensitivity and quiet assurance. It would have provided a numeracy to its protest. Dhawan does something more significant. He breaks the singular hegemony of Khosla by reviving the memory of Kanwar Sain. Opponents of the dam must look more carefully at this figure because it breaks the polarities of dam/no dam position with a quiet sensitivity to the issue of suffering.

Kanwar Sain was chairman of Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC). His reminiscences are neither an engineer’s tract nor a biography but recollections bringing out points “which may not find place in the engineering history of projects” [Dhawan 1993:259]. In one of the last chapters, Sain considers the proposed height of the SSP dam. Sain opted for a height of 440 feet, full 15 feet less than the level indicated by NWDT. He took it consciously fully realising that Khosla, founder chairman of CWPC had opted for 465 feet in 1964 [Dhawan 1993]. Khosla had in fact suggested 500 feet to harness the full hydro potential of the dam. Sain is no luddite activist. He knows the difference between a water jug and a dam. The Sain/Khosla difference is lost in footnotes but I want to revive it for several reasons.

Firstly to challenge the almost liturgical view of expertise. The Supreme Court only considers fully constituted committees. The Morse Report gets ignored because it is not an official World Bank exercise [see Judgment]. The Group of Five gets the rough end because it is not fully official. Even Sain’s observations were not official. He wrote it as a note to P Shanker who was prime minister Morarji Desai’s personal secretary [Dhawan 1993:261]. For the court, evidence gets defined as true only if it is official. Expert ritual has to be correct to be true. The height of the dam frozen into one figure acquires a sacrosanct status because the expert committee backs it with the right rituals and the right machinery.

Present behind the Supreme Court ruling is not only a Nehruvian Imagination but a public administration view of the world. Its post-dated Nehruvian suggests that large dams are permissible as long as the administrative machinery for R and R is in place. For the court what constitutes “application of the mind” is the presence of administrative machinery. It fails to look at the operation of the machinery, or the resources and skills required to run it. The court’s sense of trust in the administrative machinery would bring tears in any peasant’s eyes. Even the newfound enthusiasts of ‘Trust’ theory might find the court’s enthusiasm embarrassing. The court’s faith in technical expertise and administrative machinery is a trifle brahminic. One feels that if the right words are uttered, the equation works. But the gap between the equation and the working of the machine is never systematically explored. For the court, the correct plus the official is equal to the true.

This also explains its chagrin at Prashanth Bhushan’s statements. Bhushan with his omnibus view of the worlds cites international court rulings, World Bank records, ethnographies of tribals with equal verve. For him, all these constitute evidence of an intermeshed world. Give him half a chance he would have read Chief Seattle’s letter rightfully into the record. But for the court anything beyond expert committee records is dirt, i e, matter out of place.

This approach of the court makes for a widening difference between rule of law and justice. The river, like its notion of citizenship, has a standardised uniformity. It operates evenly, equally and R and R committees redress whatever irregularities are created. The dissenting argument that citizenship as an idea is formally empty when confronted with the variety of marginal groups in India does not move the court. Anchoring the court’s worldview is also the idea of progress and its accompanying notion of subsistence. For the court, progress is good, inevitable. It sees ‘land’ as something to be worked upon, made more efficient and productive. The subsistence farming of the tribal is a museumised way of life condemned to disappear. Any GNP increase in the life of a tribal is welcome. Subsistence is questionable and subsistence farming is not sustainable. For the court, sustainability and economic development go together. Subsistence smacks of inefficiency, irresponsibility, ignorance. Strangely it is reminiscent of an argument of the great Israeli philosopher Martin Buber. Buber argued that the land belonged to the Jews for they had worked on it, tilled it, greened it. Palestinian nomads who scampered lightly over it, had no sense of ‘the land’. The court in a similar way argues that subsistence farming is an anachronism. By bringing the tribal into modernity, the Narmada Dam becomes an act of progress and justice. To the court land is ‘real estate’. Land is not memory, ancestors, other ways of life. It is space.

The SC has a minimal sense of place. It shows the standard tourist like sensitivity to it, talks of culture, of helping retain monuments. It upholds culture in the abstract rather than in an embedded sense. Its definition of key terms like land, progress, subsistence makes it quietly progressive and deftly genocidal and immaculately innocent. John Maynard Keynes, who was also a sensitive historian of science, once observed that many tyrants and rulers have operated with the outdated social science theories of yesterday. There is not much wrong with the court’s idea of law but it is an idea of law embedded in a philosophy of progress, development and change that would make any Ford Foundation/USAID/IDS expert of the sixties happy. It is as if the social science imagination of the court is constructed from David McClelland, Kunkel, Douglas Ensminger and others. Ivan Illich or even Albert Hirschman does not quite make it to the syllabus.

It is in this context one has to explore the court’s idea of ‘sustainable development’. Sustainable development to borrow a phase from Illich is an amoeboid term. It means different things to different people. All it offers here is a set of sensibilities about development. Sustainable development justifies the displacement of the tribal and offers a paradigmatic counter to subsistence economics. Sustainability is the double or sibling of development. The career of this term is fascinating. It co-opts a range of dissenting imaginations and conscripts them on behalf of the ruling paradigm. The SC’s unthinking acceptance of the term indicates its commitment to a philosophy that needs to be questioned. If tribals and environment are part of the costs of development, then genocide and cultural assimilation may enter through the humanist backdoor. If sustainable development dealt with justice and violence, then it would talk differently about the fate of the tribals. Sustainable development in real terms merely adds to the current bureaucratic machinery, an additional two departments of state.

The SC seeks to construct a rational, statist discourse which has little place for other voices of protest. For the court, public interest litigations (PIL) are frivolous affairs. A howl of anguish is not evidence. It needs to be translated into the logic of number. But the logic of numeracy has its own format, where GNP or productivity or impact assessment or CBA or risk theory, whatever the epistemic putty in use, has greater legitimacy than the voices of protest. The court’s idea of environmental and cultural diversity, like the early models of ethnicity, is an assimilationist one. A tribal turned lower middle class is a movement in progress not a loss of a way of life.

Present in the majority judgment is an impeccable drawing room model of how cases should be presented and cited. With a boy scout’s enthusiasm, the NBA lawyer Prashant Bhushan cites a whole list of environmental cases from the US which he argues should also be relevant and applicable in India. The cases cited include Tennesse Valley Authority versus Hiram G Hill, Environmental Defense Fund versus Corps of Engineers of US Army. But the snail darter doesn’t quite win over the judges [See Narmada judgment]. For the court, environmental cases abroad sound like mission-oriented projects. There dams or technical projects appear to focus on one particular species and an endangered one at that. But in India diversity is a profusion of species – flora and fauna –and adds to the overall confusion. Instead of a singular ‘bald eagle’, or a pathetic ‘snail darter’, development projects in India threaten entire chains of being. The American Noah’s ark model of environmentalism sounds orderly next to the species confusion of the Narmada forest. No one animal or plant stands out begging for protection. Ecosystems or a subculture are catch-all words. One needs the singularity of a monument or a species to qualify for environmental strategies or media sentimentality. There is a touch of the surreal about these sections. The mind performs strange inversions while you read it. It is as if the large dam is a dying species which needs to be protected and the Supreme Court diktats work towards that purpose.

II

The anthropologist gets a strange feeling of two worlds pretending to be one. One talks of land, memory, ancestors, the disappearance of the social fabric and the other of displacement, compensation, productivity. The tacit incommensurability has to be teased out into the open for words open out to separate worlds in these conversations. The tribals and the NBA activists talk of the magic of place. But place becomes space and therefore, eminently substitutable. In philosophical terms, one discourse talks the language of life world, of ‘dwelling’ in the Heideggerian sense, the other of system. To accuse the Supreme Court of corruption, capitalism, anti-people bias at this level does not deal with the judgment. The court is following the logic of an old political theory. Within its discourse, certain statements get preference, certain worlds are more possible, certain silences more explainable. Alfred Schutz once said “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing”. The question before us is how do we make the court see what is obvious to us. It is a challenge that activism must seriously think about.

But if anyone metaphor guides the politics of the judgment it is the politics of delayed time. There is a general recognition of this. Even the five-member expert group stated: “The SDP is now in an advanced stage of construction, with the central portion of the dam already raised up to 80 metres, the canal constructed up to 140 km. And the equipment for various components ordered. An expenditure of over Rs 3,800 crore is said to have already been incurred. The benefits for which these costs have been incurred have not materialised yet. If any suggestion for major changes in the features of the project is to be entertained at all, there will have to be the most compelling reasons for doing so.”

The court’s ruling locates the project in official time stating that “the project, in principle, was cleared over 25 years ago when the foundation stone was laid by late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru”. The project then becomes a struggle in time. There is delayed time, deferred time, time bound programmes, timetables. Time, official time, valorises the project. Every click of the clock adds value and legitimacy to the project increasing its pain, and burden, i e, cost overruns. It is the politics of delayed time that valorised the project. The court realises that too much of the deferred time of gratification may undermine the project. A historical project like the Narmada, inaugurated in official time, calibrated in expert time, promised in democratic time has no time for the ecological time of marginal tribals speaking of ancestral time, seasonal time, the time of soils. Ecological time cannot be messy time. It has to be transformed into environmental time of impact assessment. Nature must unfold like a linear series. The time of relief and rehabilitation is forward looking time which joins progressive time. The time of R and R has no time for the time of grief, loss, erasure, remembrance and obsolescence. The court reads the time of PIL and protest as frivolous time to be ejected from timetables. Historical time, official time, planned time, project time have combined to eject the time of marginals. The court also cites the Tribunal award noting that the final order and decision of the tribunal cannot be reviewed for a period of 45 years. Because the court does not understand obsolescent time, remembered time, its spatialises it. R and R is a spatial phenomenon. One moves across empty time from space A to space B. Hydraulics, i e, displacement over space, is a better metaphor than Bergson’s duree or even chronobiology for understanding the court.

III

The political philosophy of the court operates according to the following principles of hierarchy. The court emphasises that “national interest should have overriding priority” central to national interest is the idea of security and water is an issue in security. What determines issues dealing with security and national interest is the committee of experts. The nation moves or rather progresses from expert decision to expert decision. The court insists that irrigation should have priority over power and adds that irrigation should be extended to maximum area...”in particular along the international border with Pakistan...to encourage sturdy peasants to settle in these border areas”. The court adds in parenthesis that “later events have confirmed the imperative need for this” (see p 8, Narmada judgment). The court is clear that the processes of the state are sacrosanct. Dispute or differences between states are settled by tribunals. Once the decision of the tribunal is published it “is binding on the states” and “ it will not be open to third party like the petitioners to challenge the correctness thereof”.

The court admits that it deals with the petitioner’s case only because of his contention that issues of fundamental rights may be involved. The court then addresses Shanti Bhushan’s contention that “the forceful displacement of tribal and other marginal farmers from their land other sources of livelihood for a project which was not in the national interest was a violation of their rights under Article 21 of the Constitution read along with the ILO Convention 107 of which India is signatory” (p 39). The court has to arbitrate between human rights and national laws and regulations relating to national security and national economic development. It admits displacement is required only as an exceptional measure. Secondly all those displaced shall be provided lands of equivalent quality. It is fascinating to watch the techniques the court unfolds. It places the submerged villages on a technical and economic gradient and then converts the technical gradient into a moral one. The court employs two tactics. Talking of the submerged villages, the court states these villages are mainly in the hilly area and cover subsistence economies. The forests that these hilly areas boast about is a misnomer, an ecological joke. The court cites the government of Madhya Pradesh stating “The undulating hilly terrain in the lower submergence area of Sardar Sarovar Project exhibit naked and depleted forests. Even small forest animals are very rarely seen because of lack of forest cover and water. The oft-quoted symbiotic living with forests is a misnomer in this area because the depleted forests have nothing to offer except fuel wood... Anybody visiting this area finds the people desperately sowing even in the hills with steep gradient. Only one rain-fed crop of mostly maize is sown and so there is no surplus economy” (p 41). Suddenly development appears as an enclosure movement.

The tactic is lethal. First, the tribals operate in a subsistence system. Two, the forests are wastelands which even small animals are embarrassed to inhabit. Three, the court destroys not only forest cover but the semiotic cover which tribals exemplified, man’s communitas with the forest. The sequence is clear. Subsistence ecological degradation the end of tribes as a moral economy. A society without surplus must be developed. The coup de grace is delivered in the next page when the court cites the H S Gour university survey observes that “the major resistance to relocation was from the richer non-tribal families of Nimad who feared shortage of agricultural labour if the landless labourers from the areas accepted resettlement” (p 43). In three pages which writers from Stalin to Spencer could acclaim, the court bestows on the dam the status of a moral economy. Tribal resistance beyond a point is now not only futile and amoral but unhistorical.

For court, water defines national interest. The calculus of suffering is simple. With a population expecting to nibble 1.5 billion to 1.8 billion by 2050, water is the prime necessity. Citing the World Bank the judgment observes: “The project has the potential to feed as many as 20 million people and provide domestic and industrial water for about 30 million...Set against the futures of about 70,000 project affected people, even without the multiplier effect, the ratio of beneficiaries to affected persons is well over 100:1” (p 45).

The court has triaged the affected people. Suddenly it is they who look as violators of future rights. For the court the dam does not violate rights, it is an ennabling notion of citizenship. It states: “The displacement of the tribals and other persons would not per se result in the violation of their fundamental or other rights. The effect is to see that on their rehabilitation at new locations they are better off than what they were” (p 48). It promises that “the gradual assimilation in the mainstream of the society will lead to betterment and progress”. One feels if Orwell were to write about authoritarianism again the story would be around a dam; development would be the new newspeak or Animal Farm would be written as a Supreme Court judgment.

IV

Shanti Bhushan’s claim that the complexity of the dam has not been understood and that full information in the form of systematic studies not available is dismissed. The balancer is brilliant. True, the studies might be incomplete but they are in process and will grow like money in the bank. The court’s reply is a faith in the process of research and trust in the existence of administrative machinery. The use of a monitoring and enforcement authority legitimates the Narmada system. For the court this authority was not an advisory one but had executive powers of enforcement including “the power to order stoppage of construction activity in case there was a lack of progress on the environmental front” (p 63). All the government needs to do is to create the hyphen between environment and development. It adds with a flourish “the choice is difficult but a choice has to be made”.

There is in the court’s worldview both a sense of naivete and a sense of realism. There is a tremendous faith in administrative machinery in the formal sense. An announcement of survey is taken as a guarantee of final completion. The court makes crucial distinction between ecological principles in pollution cases and in natural resource conflicts. In pollution cases, the court has upheld the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle. Both these progressive pieces of law seem to be off bounds for the Narmada case. The court’s argument is fascinating. It argues that these principles are novel innovations “which places the burden of proof on the developer or industrialist who is proposing to alter the status quo”. The court notes that “it was the inadequacies of science that had led to the precautionary principle where the burden of proof is placed on those who wish to change the status quo” (p 94). The precautionary principle is particularly applied to cases of irreversible harm such as the extinction of a species or widespread toxic pollution. But in the Narmada case, the court feels there is no question of uncertainty, risk or irreversibility. The court argued that where the effect is known and mitigative steps can be taken the polluter pays principle was inapplicable. It adds “merely because there will be change is no reason to presume there will be ecological disaster” (p 95). The court believes that Narmada is not a case where effects are unknown and knowledge uncertain.

Narmada to the court belongs to a closed world and a finite universe. Narmada is a project that deals with a known and predictable world. As the court observed in its good conduct certificate “In the present case, we are not concerned with the polluting industry. What is being constructed is a large dam. 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 40 years in the construction of dams. The experience does not show that the construction of a large dam is not cost effective or leads to ecological or environmental degradation” (p 96). The Narmada dam, the court holds, deals with known facts. “Merely because there will be a change is no reason to presume that there will be an ecological disaster.” The court brings a final sleight of hand by claiming that “when the effect of the project is known that the principles of sustainable development would come into play” (p 95).

The impact is powerful. In a few pages Narmada moves from the domain of human rights relocation, gigantic displacements to the world of sustainable development. Even Bo Brundtland could not have dreamed it better [Visvanathan 1999]. The court adds that diversity is important but it notes that “it has not been shown that any endangered species exist in the area of impoundment. In the Tennessee Valley Authority case it was an accepted position that the continued existence of the snail darter which was an endangered species would be completely jeopardised” (Narmada judgment, p 101). For the court natural diversity is good but a diversity of schools, post offices and bus services was even better.

V

In the final pages dams, democracy and development come together in a new ‘trimurti’. There is an almost syllogistic power to the final pages. All the reader can do is assemble the propositions. The opening lines of the conclusion state. “Water is one element without which life cannot sustain itself. Therefore, it is to be regarded as one of the primary duties of the government to ensure availability of water to the people” (p 165). Step II is simple. The court contends “Studies show that 75 per cent of the monsoon water drains into the sea after flooding a large land area due to absence of storage capacity” (p 163). The court then dismisses the pollutioner’s contention that water harvesting and check dams can eliminate the need for a high dam like Sardar Sarovar. ‘Dams’ says the SC civics lesson “serve a number of purposes. It stores water, generate electricity, and releases water throughout the year at times of scarcity” (p 164). Dams control floods, provide drinking water, generate hydropower. A dam says the court is not a mere water harvesting structure, it is an infrastructural project.

The court says its duty is to see that in undertaking a dam no law is violated and “people’s fundamental rights are not transgressed except to the extent permissible under the Constitution” (p 166). The court rules the delay can destroy such a project. Protest against the dam cannot be frivolous exercises. Therefore, the court rules “Public interest litigation should not be allowed to degenerate becoming Publicity Interest Litigation or Private Inquisitiveness Litigation” (p 166). Even Rusy Karanjia’s BLITZ in its heyday could not turn out such prose.

The court then becomes milder, almost introspective: “In a democracy welfare of the people at large and not merely as small section of a society, has to be the concern of a responsible government.” The court then argues that “in a democratic set-up, it is for the elected government to decide what project should be undertaken for the benefit of the people. Once such a project is undertaken and unless it can be proved that there is blatant illegality...the Court ought not to interfere with the execution of the project” (p 168).

The next step holds that “large-scale river valley projects all over the country have made India self-sufficient in food”. It recognises displacements occur that a people get “disconnected from their past, culture, customs and traditions”, but this becomes necessary to “harvest a river for a larger good”. The court rules “large dams have become instruments for improving the environment” and adds “poverty is an environmental degrader”. With this twin scissors there is little left of the movement. It adds almost redundantly that “one of the indicators of the living standards of the people is the per capita construction of electricity” (p 174). All the developmental cliches of the sixties combine with an electoral theory of democracy to create a middle class world. Narmada becomes a river of social science cliches. Environment and human rights exist in the package but as peripherals. What defeats the movement is a formal idea of law and a plethora of bad social science. The ghosts of Comte, Herbert Spencer, McClelland live in our court judgments threatening our poor, our marginals, our dissenters in the name of the very values we cherish – democracy, rule of law, justice.

VI

The questions before us are – what does one say to a judgment like this? Do we go to war condemning it, trashing it as anti-people, pro-capitalist World Bank inspired scenario or do we find a site for dialogue, of resistance? At one level the court’s decision has let the political air out of our lungs. How do we proceed? The answer lies in the law itself in Justice Bharucha’s dissenting judgment (see J Bharucha, NBA vs Union of India, pp 1-32), in forcing the court to recognise that we have to fight every inch of the way. The court has suggested that the height of the dam is both system and lifeworld, that every threshold increase in height must be accompanied with pari passu rehabilitation.

I think we must turn to rehabilitation as a site of resistance and creativity. For years, we have needed Directive Principles of environmental policy which could be made justiceable in the same way that property was earlier. We must apply for right to information and the oustees’ right to participate in his act of rehabilitation. We must make participative and sustainable development say and mean things that has not been said. So far consider a simple example. I believe, the literary critic Ganesh Devy, has been working quietly in the Gujarat areas persuading the Gujarat government to establish schools where tribals can be taught in their own language. Devy on his side has assured that texts will be available for it. We need more such examples. We need to expand the Desai effect. It was Justice P B Desai’s work on rehabilitation and its possibilities that blunted the ‘no dam’ position. Let us develop proper quality of life indicators to assess rehabilitation. We don’t need to get ideological or fundamentalist. The criteria that Sen-Haq applied to the UNDP Human Development reports are enough. Let us present a Human Development report of these regions, develop through citizen’s committees mechanisms for ecological improvement and citizens participation in these areas.

The debate for alternatives has been badly fought. Mere talk of water harvesting or diversity won’t do. Let INTACH map every monument saved or destroyed, let Kalpavriksh and The Bombay Natural History Society chronicle the lives of forests in the area and compare whether the greening of these new regions justifies the courts trust in administrative machinery. If the people of Gujarat feel the waters will add to their quality of life, let us ask whether they are ready to pay a small tax for those of their fellow citizens who are not so fortunate.

In the last decades the Japanese people with the government have created at Lake Biwa a museum not only of its past but of its future. It is a democratic statement of trusteeship of a lake. It is also an enlightened act of governance. A society at large accepts trusteeship of nature and the cultures that sustained it. Can the fate of our rivers and the people enmeshed in it create new models of democracy and governance? The court has been theological about development. How do we challenge that theology without succumbing to the rhetoric of sustainability or idiot defence of subsistence or alternatives? These are challenges before us.

Narmada is an example of a powerful movement which changed the discourse on dams worldwide. The question is can the struggle continue to show the discourse of dams is not yet a discourse on democracy. Can we exploit every crevice, crack, loophole, ambiguity, doubt within the system to do so? The reigning paradigm of development has won by building another epicycle of administrative concessions. One more round may break the potential banner that marginal movements so desperately need to turn their voice, their way of life into the foundations of a more plural democratic theory in a society that does not believe that what is good for the middle class is good for our country.


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