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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : Rivers and reason

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Saturday, August 14, 1999


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Rivers and reason

By Pulapre Balakrishnan

FOR SOME time now, Ms. Arundhati Roy has written and spoken on the singular theme of development. She has proposed that the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) must be subjected to a credible review during which time all work must cease. She has argued that the oft-painted picture of the over-stretched Indian state struggling ceaselessly and against all odds to eradicate poverty and deprivation is the very obverse of the reality, and she has queried the model wherein the government charts the destiny of this country.

The original conception of the SSP is in deep waters. It is not just that it is of human interest, what with the displacement that it must cause when it comes to full fruition, as it were. On the contrary, there are severe doubts about its economic value per se, quite independently of the environmental implications. Even as the project outlay from public funds is immense, the expected outcomes are uncertain. Of course, this nature of the relation between outlay and outcome is not unique to the SSP. It is after all the stuff of enterprise. And it is precisely from this vantage point that the demand for a fresh review of the project not only makes eminently good sense, it is also timely if one objects to throwing good money after bad. Indeed, it is of a crop of the utterly mundane arguments for good governance. I use ``good governance'' in a sense far removed from its use in agreements between national governments and the international lending agencies. In these encounters, good governance is confined to the maintenance of certain targets for macro-economic indicators. This would hardly do when it comes to democracy where the process by which decisions are arrived at - the essence of governance - is of paramount interest.

With the dam, there can be no quarrel over so reasonable a proposal as a review while building has come to a halt. After all, there were studies by independent persons of the economic aspects of the Bhakra Nangal project. How is the SSP any different? Indeed it is such a review that would be in the spirit of scientific inquiry rather than some oracular vision that sees, as if in a trance, large dams as ``the temples of modern India''. Surely, modernity comes with at least a little mundaneness? If we are not happy with the World Bank-appointed, though independent, Commission's negative verdict on the project, let us have the Government of India appoint an independent commission comprising professionals and persons in public life. And if we are to maximise the chances for good decisions to emerge through disinterested advice, it would be a shame if non-Indians are kept out on principle, if principle could ever be made to extend to such exclusion. At a much earlier stage of the Indian republic, we had had Le Corbusier design Chandigarh and Nicky Kaldor advise the Planning Commission. I have gone out of my way to say this for I was recently astounded to hear the argument, if one it is, that the Narmada activists ``take foreign money''. We have not allowed such squeamishness to dampen our enthusiasm for expatriate Indian academics bringing `home' international prizes.

A cost-benefit analysis is the professional economists' answer to the complement of questions posed by projects such as the SSP. They would also be the first to caution against treating the exercise as a magic bullet. There are problems of valuation of the tangible ones themselves, leave alone the intangible costs and benefits. However, one can hardly avoid going through this at a minimum, and making the results public. For a Government to refuse to accede to this demand is unacceptable as governance and not credible as a signal of the extent of professionalism involved. For not only are the benefits uncertain, even in a world of certainty there are, after all, competing uses of the moneys. This is the notion of economic cost, the principle underlying the somewhat hyped, but nevertheless useful, idea of economic value added currently swishing over the international corporate world.

In a setting far removed from the Narmada valley, we see yet another game involving governments and people playing out. The only difference is that there is a more upfront appearance of the profits involved. On the banks of the Chaliyar river at Mavoor in Kozhikode, a public agitation of varying intensity has been going on for over three decades against the pollution caused by the Grasim Industries' plant. This originated in 1958 when the Kerala Government signed an agreement with the management, including for raw materials made over almost free. The implications of the agreement for the original inhabitatants of the forest parallel those of the forest policy of the colonial government of Malabar. Statistics on resource use are mind-boggling too, such as the estimates of the volume of water used daily by the plant in relation to that used by the townspeople of Kozhikode. And mention has not even been made of the consequences for the rural population strung out along the river.

It is not a matter of struggling for some quaint ``way of life''. Some have had kith and kin who have actually lost life itself. A figure of over 200 dead from cancer or respiratory ailment due to pollutant discharge in the Mavoor and Vazhakkad panchayats is mentioned. This is difficult to verify let alone establishing beyond doubt. However, even if we settle for half the estimate, it would be an unacceptable price to pay for the untrammelled pursuit of private profit. The Kerala Government has stonewalled all representation on behalf of the people of the Chaliyar basin.

It is perhaps unknown that the Chaliyar Samara Samiti, constituted largely by citizens who are not beneficiaries of the plant and campaigning for the closure of the Grasim unit at Mavoor, has called for the rehabilitation of workers prior to the provision of compensation for the victims of pollution. Of course, even so conservative a discourse as Welfare Economics allows for gainers to compensating the losers. It would be ironical to term the victims of a long drawn-out environmental disaster ``gainers'', but say that we do and we find that these are more like the wretched of the earth with no wherewithal to compensate anyone. Thus, if the factory were to be closed, the workers would have to be compensated from public funds. It is unlikely that, when informed, the people of Kerala would object to such an arrangement. However, the details of the scheme must recognise that it cannot be deemed just that individuals possess rights in perpetuity to profits and wages from an economic activity that is injurious to one's fellow citizens. To speak of red herring from the Chaliyar would be black humour considering that there is little life left in the river, but `red herring' abounds in the knee-jerk responses to the suggestion that there be an open debate on the question.

Actually, to propose the textbook version of cost-benefit analysis is perhaps overly generous in a context where private profits are involved. A cost-benefit analysis is usually recommended for proposed public projects. At Mavoor, for over 40 years we have seen the failure of the government regulatory environment apart from its privileging, even excluding the capitalists, of the rights of one set of players over that of the other. It is really too late for a cost-benefit analysis! Nothing short of a review of all aspects, especially the damage done to the livelihood and habitat of the excluded, will do. During this time production must be stayed by public order.

If we are to participate in the modernist project of modernity then we had better bring along with ourselves the mundane box of tools that are the checks and balances to backward rule. Low credibility attaches itself to a politics where the state is supremely unaccountable. There is something farcical yet in the electoral drill that yields only the repeated capture of the state apparatus in turn by rival parties. Someone somewhere saw authentic politics as ``the public actions of a free people''. Some of the mobilisation against developmental adventurism and narrowly partisan governance such as we see in the Narmada Valley and at Mavoor respectively answers this description. Slowly, it seems we are damming the river of our reason.


Section  : Opinion
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