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The Hindu on : A bitter pill, but for whose health?

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Monday, September 13, 1999

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A bitter pill, but for whose health?

THIS IS with reference to the article by Ms. Gail Omvedt (August 4-5) and Mr. Ashish Kothari (August 17) on the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Ms. Omvedt has chosen to write on behalf of all the persons who feel threatened by Ms. Arundhati Roy's book on the NBA. They are eco-romanticist and anti-development, she says. And development, according to her, is equal to dams. Because dams help production - which is development. So the neat and tidy circle is complete - without any shabby, untidy and crumpled ``people''. Big dams mean big production and big development. Big dams are development-friendly. So what if they are not people- friendly? If one talks about dam-induced adversities caused to the people - one is accused of obstructing development.

It is romance to highlight the plight of the adivasis and wisdom to proclaim human sacrifice for the dams! Mind you - there is no denial or dispute of Ms. Roy's vivid presentation of the heartrending and avoidable hardships caused to the people displaced by the big dams. Yes, Ms. Omvedt is kind enough to accept and acknowledge that the bitter pill has to be swallowed (by whom?) in the broader interest of national development. What specious and cruel logic! Who takes the pill and who gets well! But don't ask these uncomfortable questions because you might end up obstructing development.

What is this development god we are so fond of - the overbearing idol we are subject to? Is there only one kind of development as Ms. Omvedt seems to imply or are there alternative strategies and paths? Her writings pre-empt the positing of these questions.

Who takes decisions? Who makes technological choices? What is produced? How is it shared? How is economic conflict resolved or intensified? How are people divided into classes? These are the pertinent points, which a development paradigm has to address. The dominant paradigm at the present historical juncture is the capitalist one. This reproduces itself by production for the sake of production driven by the profit motive. What is produced has to be sold - therefore, we have manipulation of needs through advertising. The questions raised above are decided in consonance with this driving force of unbridled production. ``Need'' is secondary and subservient to the pressure to produce ad infinitum. ``Requirement'' can be artificially generated ex- post.'' The working out of this development model typically takes the form of polarity of opposites - the rich and the poor.

Economic discrepancy is the hallmark of the paradigm. There are rich and poor countries, regions and people. Development breeds underdevelopment concurrently as its alter ego. If Kalahandi records starvation deaths, it is not because of lack of development, as Ms. Omvedt would like us to believe, but because of underdevelopment linked to development elsewhere. That is, it is a created and modern condition and not a natural legacy of the pre-capitalist era.

The understanding of large dams has to be situated in the context of this development paradigm. If the overriding objective is production and not people (they are the means) and interest of the two conflict production takes precedence. The agenda however is not always clearly specified. Here starts the camouflage. ``Production is all for people,'' goes the saying. If people have to be sacrificed for people - that's fine. Slippery arguments. Who gets sacrificed for whom? They are not from the same class. But you don't see `classes' - separated by socio-economic distance - if you talk of `people'. Hotch-potch collection of people. So Ms. Omvedt and company join in the game of ``confusion perpetuation'' by talking of development of the people, for the people, by the people.

Unequal distribution

Could we perhaps read it as development of the rich, for the rich by the poor? No. All talk of rich and poor is sentimental, romantic and emotional and, therefore, unscientific. But dams for everyone including the poor is acceptable. More irrigation and electricity will give us more food and industry with which we can feed our poor and give them jobs, runs the argument. What about the classic paradox of surplus foodgrains in the country along with persistent malnutrition of the masses? The name of the game is unequal distribution of resources. People starve and are undernourished not because they are too many, but because the money they have is too little. We have therefore `surplus food' and `over-population'.

Class bias of over-population is also missed out in the popular and fashionable theory of population causes poverty. Or is it poverty that breeds high population? So how do we treat poverty or population? There is no space for asking these questions where it is taken for granted that dams are required to produce food for ``over-population''. Since the population is `surplus' anyway, a few of the surplus category could be dispensed with for producing more food, which ironically will be beyond the reach of likes of them! The poor should sacrifice and work very hard to generate their own poverty - runs the specious logic.

Next Ms. Omvedt observes how `people' (dam-displaced) have not been allowed to talk to `people' (dam-demanding). So that a reasonable compromise could evolve. Random talking of people has never resulted in action. Organisation is a pre-requisite for social change and organisations have leaders. Is the author trying to imply that the NBA leaders have prevented the free interaction of people? Any substantiation? No. The Gujarat Government has the backing of the people of Gujarat who are demanding the dam. Does Ms. Omvedt refuse to recognise the economic and political nexus of most Governments? Are the poor farmers of Gujarat aware of the hidden agenda of the political/corporate clique or are they fed on the fiction manufactured to extract political mileage for the powers that want to push the dam through to its unwarranted height?

The NBA does not explore alternatives, says Ms. Omvedt (Mr. Ashish Kothari, in his August 17 article has rightly dismissed this as a travesty of truth). Quickly, however, she discounts the ``magic cure'' of rainwater harvesting and watershed-based development approaches cited by the NBA as technically unviable in low rainfall areas! Is it too much to expect basic logical consistency from a supposedly serious writer? May be there is too much anxiety to run down the book or else someone might actually read it before it is burnt. That rainwater harvesting is indeed viable in low rainfall areas has been underlined with examples by Mr. Kothari. Ms. Omvedt then expresses touching concern for the dry parched areas of the South. Is she aware of the massive watershed programme being implemented there under the Drought Prone Area Development scheme, which have made an impressive impact in some of the worst hit districts of Mahabubnagar and Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh.

The issue is not that there is less water, but what is done with it, how its use is regulated. Do you allow big landlords to guzzle it for their rice and sugarcane? Or do you enforce less water consumption cropping pattern by mobilising the entire community, as was done in Ralegaon Sidhi and Pani Panchayat of Maharashtra? Water deficiency is artificially created when limited resources are monopolised by a few.

Well, if nothing else is left, let us attack the NBA for its `middle class' and `international' links. Is the reference to CIA or ISI? Or is it the various organisations and individuals across the world who feel strongly about environmental issues and seek to network to facilitate hearing of the voice of adivasis over and above the attempts to muffle them. Is this a crime? Any more fault-finding?

Finally, why the need to burn Ms. Roy's book? Why is there no attempt to confront the data, which speaks volumes? Why no eye-to-eye, point-by-point meeting? Why are the responses so hysterical and ridiculous? Is it the fear of truth? Why don't the opponents of the book make a serious attempt to question her findings - which should be the challenge? Let the critique be sensible and cogent, so that a meaningful discourse can emerge. Distortion, mutilation, cutting and burning are only irrational responses born out of frustration of being forced to face the bitter truth.


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