© Frontline, 1999


The struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Dam has brought into focus the perils of a growth path that means only deprivation for the toiling millions.


0n the threshold of the 21st century, humankind stands at a cross-roads. The 20th century has been the most violent century in human history. Undoubtedly, the two World Wars saw the most ghastly and heinous kind of violence and genocide, but no less serious is the violence against nature and the other living species that has been driven by unbridled consumerism and production to propitiate creature comforts,

The hallmark of the present century is the phenomenal technological advance in the realm of commodity production and in the transport and communication sectors and services. The dominant ideology of the past 50 years can be summed up thus: growth, unlimited. By and large it is a creed of undifferentiated and undirected growth. The fierce and fervent intellectual, ideological and pedagogical debate through this century was not about the content and character of growth. It was driven by a desire for a humane way of organising society, economy and the polity. But, somewhere along the way, growth became the sacred cow, the unquestionable goal. Growth per se was development.

In less than 50 years, this growthmania has pushed the world to the brink of disaster. As resources deplete at an alarming rate, the ecological toll has become very heavy and is exceeding all limits. Indeed, the security of the planet and its people is seriously threatened by the global forces of growth.

The ruling elite in the Third World argue vehemently that ecological considerations should not be entertained in the pursuit of growth. The "grow as fast as you can" model of modern Western industrialism is pursued in the name of national development. The global growth experience is replete with examples of stupendous cost and the consequences of consumerist growthmanship, and yet our ruling elite is blatantly aping the resource squandering growth path. Mega-irrigation and power projects form the kingpin of this strategy.

Water and energy are undeniably the primary prerequisites of human development, but it is erroneous to equate them with mega-projects. Age-old and time-tested sources of energy and methods of tapping (them are replaced by centralised grids or electricity) and large reservoirs (for water). Mighty power grids purvey energy over huge distances. This is precisely what we have been doing in the past 50 years in the name of planning for national development a la Jawaharlal Nehru. The irrigation network and the power grid have been enough to creed to satiate consumerist greed.

Regrettably, the pattern of growth that we have had has not helped usher in an egalitarian social order. According to Mahatma Gandhi, the objective of the freedom struggle was "to wipe every tear from every eye." The question after 50 years is: how far has India succeeded in this task? By any reckoning, the problemsof poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, ill-health and lack of shelter have become more acute and widespread than earlier. Plans and projects involving outlays of thousands of millions of rupees have not helped the toiling millions. On the contrary, the so-called development projects have affected them adversely and accentuated their daily suffering. In plain terms, for the vast majority of the people, development means deprivation, displacement and destruction of their precious life supportsystem. Through project after project, plan after plan, the story is the same. Denied human rights and information, the displaced and deprived sections of the population are mute spectators of the power-game which perpetrates destruction in the name of national development.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, people began to resist and raise their voices in protest. They questioned the cost-benefit calculus and exposed the statistical bluff. The futility of building big, bigger and the biggest became more and more manifest. The Chipko movement in the Garhwal region and the movement against the Silent Valley power project in Kerala attracted world-wide attention. The success of these movements paved the way for the campaigns against the Sardar Sarovar Project, the Tehri dam, the nuclear power plant at Kaiga and so on. The Narmada and Tehri projects became the agenda of so-called national development for the rulers. Resistance to and refusal to agree to the growth path and pattern of development favoured by the ruling elite became the focal point of movements of the toiling people such as those of adivasis, Dalits, farmers, fisherfolk and women. Crusaders like Sunderlal Bahuguna and Medha Patkar became the symbol of people's hopes and aspirations. They exposed the hollowness of official statistics and rekindled the spirit of satyagraha and mobilised the people to stand up against the might and machinations of the state. Their struggle was against the state efforts towards the displacement and disintegration of people and communities.

The adverse impact of the resource squandering growth, process is becoming clearer by the day. The Indian as well as the global experience amply prove that the mega-projects for irrigation and power are antithetical to the interests of the common people. They do not promote equity and they are not suitable. In fact, because of the high costs involved, they provide at best temporary solutions to the permanent problems of water and energy.

As of now there is a clear conflict and contradiction between the two approaches to development. One is concerned with engineering and the other with ecology. The engineering-dominated technocratic growth-path believes in building huge structures and making grids for water and electricity. The crucial factor in this approach is centralised control. It totally alienates the people who have harnessed these resources through the centuries with great ingenuity and ensured their sustainability. They are disempowered and displaced and there is no end to their suffering. Planners and policy-makers sermonise to them about suffering for the nation. Asking such questions as who constitutes the nation and for whom development is meant are considered diversionary by the ruling elite which wants to go ahead with the displacement and is prepared to drown its opponents in the Narmada Valley, who are at this very moment rallying resolutely and bravely in thevalley.

THE struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Project has been pushed into a very critical phase by the powers-that-be. The Supreme Court has lifted a stay on the dam construction work (Frontline, August 27 1999) and permitted an increase in the dam's height by 5 metres. This would result in the submergence of a vast number of villages. The inhabitants of these villages have refused to move because they are aware of the tardy state of rehabilitation so far. Notwithstanding the claims and affidavits of the State governments that are parties to this project there is simply not enough land available to be provided to all the displaced people. Besides, the Scate governments do not have the political will to enforce this. As such, the design to submerge the area by raising the dam height is heinous. The people in the Narmada Valley have resolved not to leave their homes and hamlets, come what may. The situation is indeed 'critical. Will civil society and the ruling elite care to consider the gravity of the situation azd realise, at least at this late hour, the consequences of such disastrous projects? Will someone listen to the cry of the soul of the people of the valley?

It is a call to the conscience of the nation. One can only hope that in this land of Gandhi there is still some spirit and sensitivity left for what is just and humane.

H.M, Desarda, an economist, is a former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Board.