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The real lesson of Narmada
To the young people who gathered recently at the Narmada to protest against the Sardar Sarowar project the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which 3 million people died, is a piece of history. This is understandable. The 90s have witnessed unprecedented food security, the result of a succession of good monsoons and comfortable buffer stocks. It is easy to forget that famine is a constant threat and hunger a reality in our country.
In retrospect we see clearly the events which led to the tragedy of the Bengal Famine of 1943. The administration had been lulled into complacency because for over 50 years there had been no largescale famines. No national program of agricultural development or irrigation program had been launched. Annual rice imports from Burma to Bengal had been disrupted by WW II, and no attempt was made to tap other sources. Those who sounded early warnings of impending famine were labelled alarmists. The railways were geared to move troops, not foodgrains, into Bengal. When famine struck the administration was unprepared. Even when the grain was finally moved in stocks rotted in station yards while nearby thousands did and bodies lay in the streets being eaten by dogs. Meanwhile grain traders made a profit of Rs 150 crore, at the cost of misery and death.
By Independence, our leaders had learnt the lessons of 1943. The Green Revolution took off and vast areas were brought under irrigation. Total production and productivity increased and it became possible to speak about food selfsufficiency as an achievable goal. Buffer stocking became part of the policy of the government. The Food Corporation of India was set up and the Railways were geared for foodgrain movements from surplus to deficit states. Since Independence, devastation of the 1943 type have been avoided. The Green Revolution, food self sufficiency and the avoidance of famine are among the finest achievements of independent India.
In 1958-61, China suffered a terrible famine in which 30 million people died. In contrast when India was affected by massive drought in 1985-87, the FCI moved food grains from its buffer stocks by rail, road and barge to fair price shops through the length an breadth of the country. Famine was averted. Since then India has had a virtually unbroken string of good monsoons and good harvests. This cannot continue indefinitely and when prolonged drought strikes again, the buffer stocks will be depleted very fast because we now have a billion mouths to feed. If imports on a sufficient scale cannot be rushed in on time, as is often the case in crises, famine deaths could be many times those of 1943. Rapid augmentation of domestic foodgrain production is, therefore, imperative for food security.
The effects of endemic hunger are not as dramatic as famine deaths, but it kills as surely. A decade ago, Amartya Sen pointed out that India had a higher death rate of 12 per 1,000, against China’s 7 per 1,000. This works out to an excess normal mortality of 3.9 million per year and, ``implies that every eight years or so, more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 195861’’. The anemia caused by malnutrition results in poor health, sluggishness and fatigue. Endemic hunger and malnutrition are the biggest blocks to any meaningful acceleration in the rate of overall development in our country.
Current trends are disquieting. The annual growth rate of food grains in the period 1990-98, at 1.7 per cent, are half of what it was in 1980-90. A crucial task in the next decade will be to reverse this trend and to step up the rate of growth over the 80s rate. But additional cultivable areas can be ruled out. More production has to come from more extensive irrigation. Current performance in irrigation is alarming: against the Eighth Plan target of 15.8 million hectares of new irrigation potential, the achievement was only 8.3 million hectares. Irrigation projects, especially those with large command areas, is necessary.
The brunt of anti-Narmada activism relates to the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of displaced persons. No other project in the country has had its R&R schemes subjected to such severe scrutiny. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (1969 to 1979) prescribed a package of reliefs, including the path-breaking provision of land for land. In the 1980s and 90s highly critical appraisals were given in the hard-hitting reports of the Tata Institute and the World Bank. Voluntary agencies like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Arch Vahini and Anand Niketan Ashram have all brought the problems of the project affected persons to national attention. The standing R&R Sub-Group set up by the Central government periodically visited the affected villages and resettlement colonies and submitted its reports to the Supreme Court. The Gujarat government has now set up an Independent Review Authority with a retired Chief Justice as Chairman to look into the grievances of the project affected families. I have headed the R&R SubGroup and can say that the Sardar Sarovar Project had one of the most comprehensive and rigorously implemented R&R packages in the whole country.
Activists are concerned about the tribal families affected and by the disruption of the tribal way of life. However, tribals are particularly affected by drought and in the wake of food scarcity and famine there is an exodus from tribal villages. As sub-divisional officer in Karnataka I saw tribal villages deserted during famines. Many had died, others moved to the cities and become homeless. Their dead villages bore in revenue records the infinitely sad epitaph `bechir agh — villages without light.
Many activists came to Narmada because it is politically correct to oppose large dams and the disruption of the tribal way of life. However, food security should be our main concern for a long time to come. The gains from a string of bumper harvests and sizeable buffer stocks can vanish in just one season of bad rainfall. If famine comes and starvation deaths occur, food self-sufficiency will assume priority. We now have three times the number we had in 1943 to feed, and will regret the water we did not supply, the harvests we did not reap and the dams we did not build. The real lesson of Narmada is that it is a sin to throw away the blessings of water.