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The Hindu on : Dams and bombs - II

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Thursday, August 05, 1999

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Dams and bombs - II

By Gail Omvedt

THE NARMADA Bachao Andolan has by now become the most famous environmental movement in India, if not in the world. It is seemingly powerful, it commands widespread sympathy, it has forced the World Bank to back off from the Narmada project and to support a World Commission on Dams that is willing to re-examine all large irrigation projects in the world. Yet there is a great weakness at heart. The NBA may have been able to move the World Bank but it has not been able to shake the Government of Gujarat, not because of the inherent repressiveness of that Government, but because of its failure to address the concerns of the rural people of the State whose support for the Sardar Sarovar rests on their demands for water.

In spite of Ms. Arundhati's Roy's reckless statement, dams are different from bombs: bombs leave only a swathe of destruction but dams, when they work, generate green fields and abundant crops which can be seen by all - both the farmers who stand to benefit and those who stand to lose from the dam. Dams do not always work, and they often create victims but unless all those affected by an irrigation project come together to fight its negative points and unite behind an alternative that can fulfil the promises of the dam, the movement will be weak. The NBA has built an alliance which links many of the Adivasis and caste Hindu peasants whose lands and villages are being submerged with a worldwide network of environmentally concerned, largely upper middle class and city-dwelling population of supporters. But in doing so, it has been affected by the eco-romanticism of these global circles, the rejection of industrial society, the feeling that commercialisation and market economy are the enemy and that a better life can be built on a subsistence-oriented agricultural production. In taking up these themes, the NBA has neglected the real needs of farmers and rural labourers in drought-prone areas. Indeed, this is the section that has been entirely sidelined in the alliance over the Narmada.

The NBA has, in fact, fallen victim to one of the tactics of ``divide and rule'' used by the state to push through projects. For the very nature of the dam projects is to divide people - to divide farmers who will benefit from irrigation water from those who stand to be victimised by it, to divide the drought-afflicted from the dam-afflicted and those in the ``command area'' of projects from those in the catchment area. Not addressing this division and the real needs of the drought-affected farmers, the NBA has been caught in a trap: the stronger and more resource- rich its international and national networks appear, the more the Gujarat Government can depict it as alien to the needs and concerns of the people of the State. In 1991, when I visited Ferkuva, it was clear that the Gujarat Government was mobilising a show of support, not only by caste Hindu farmers but by Adivasis as well. On the Maharashtra side, where Ms. Medha Patkar's fast was going on, a group of the Niphad area farmers - apparently some of those whom Ms. Arundhati Roy met, bragging of the sacks of grain they could produce - said simply, ``people from both sides should sit down and talk.'' They meant both the people standing to lose from the land and those hoping to gain from it. People, they said, not governments, not the movement leaders, but the people. This has never happened.

This does happen in other parts of India. In Maharashtra, a ``Dam and Project-Affected Farmers' Conference'' has been working under the Left leadership from the early 1970s, the main slogan being ``first rehabilitation and then the dam''. Those who stand to be victimised by irrigation projects have organised, they have fought for their rights, they have indeed stopped work on dam projects but they have not opposed dams as such. Indeed, one of the achievements of their movement has been to get many claims to compensatory land within the command area of irrigation projects recognised. Today, the theme on dam projects is one of restructuring: minimise the heights of the dams, minimise displacement and emphasise not only the building of reservoirs but the widespread and equalitarian distribution of water. A movement involving farmers and agricultural labourers of 13 taluks in five districts of the Krishna Valley has been going on since 1993, demanding not only the completion of the dams and reservoirs before the time-limit set by the Bachawat Award (which allotted water among Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) but also equal water distribution. They have put forward an alternative proposal that involved providing water to every family in every village in the valley, arguing that 560 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) is Maharashtra's share which is sufficient not only for this but also for industrial purposes and the existing sugar factories.

A similar alternative has been suggested for the Sardar Sarovar project. In their book Sustainable Technology: Making the Sardar Sarovar Project Viable, Suhas Paranjpye and K. J. Joy have argued that the height of the dam can be drastically minimised, the submerssible area cut to one-third of its present extent and the project restructured to be much more decentralised. Their proposal is that a barrage can be built below the existing dam to carry water to the drought areas of Saurashtra and Kutch; there water can be stored in farmers' fields rather than in a huge reservoir, used to grow biomass and even to generate electricity. It is an example of how large irrigation projects need not be centralised, how they can be restructured in the interests of social justice to make water accessible to all. The real tragedy is that not that this alternative has been ignored by the governments which are stubbornly going ahead with the dam but that it has been ignored by the NBA as well. Apparently, the idea of making the project, ``viable'' is not of much interest to the opponents of big dams. The conclusion is inescapable that their main concern is to question the entire goal of development itself.

Much of the environmental movement thus appears caught in an extremist trap. Ms. Arundhati Roy's rhetoric of the common destructiveness of ``dams and bombs'' is an example of this. The ``traditional'' way, as we have argued, also involved interference with nature, sometimes aggression against nature; it involved irrigation projects of various sizes and types. The traditional way was also a way linked to caste hierarchies - even the small-scale, local irrigation projects were often totally controlled by the upper-caste, priestly landowning elites of the villages.

It was linked to a division expressed in the Marathi saying, ``in the house of the Brahmans there is knowledge, in the house of the Kunbis there is grain, in the house of the Mahars there is song.'' Needless to say, the Brahmans also had sufficient grain and while the Kunbis may have been more prosperous than the Mahars, both were deprived of the knowledge that is the real basis of prosperity in the world. These forms of feudal bondage and not simply the desire for economic progress lie behind the desire of farmers, agricultural labourers and Adivasis themselves for development.

What they want is to learn from the best of traditional ways of life and production, not to be limited to them; to fight the hierarchical and exploitative aspects of traditional values in maintaining the positive aspects; and to unite these with modern science and technology, not to turn their backs on science as inherently destructive. The NBA has become the voice of the eco- romanticists of the world, not that of the adivasis, Dalits and Bahujan farmers of the valley.


Section  : Opinion
Previous : India & the concert of democracies
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