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The Hindu on : Setting a tide mark - I

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, March 08, 2000

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Setting a tide mark - I

By Jai Sen

THE SUPREME Court has now begun its final set of hearings on a case filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in 1994, asking for a comprehensive review of the project. In many senses, and at many levels, this final set of hearings - and the final orders that the Bench responsible has reportedly been instructed to definitely now issue - constitute nothing less than a historic juncture. This is a time when there is an urgent need to take a step back and to see in perspective the case, the issues that the NBA and the debate around it have raised, both explicitly and also between the lines, and - last but not least - the role of the Supreme Court in the India of today, and what we expect of it.

Using the term `historic juncture' is not a mere rhetorical flourish. In this case, we will witness not merely the resolution of an important case about the sharing of waters, or even about what height a dam should be (and therefore what its social and environmental effects will be). These are important enough questions. But in this case, the orders will (or should) also be addressing more fundamental questions - of how planning of such large inter-State projects should be done where lakhs and even millions of people are involved; of what the rights are of ordinary citizens, who are affected by such planning, to question and even challenge such planning and indeed to directly participate in planning; and of the accountability of project authorities and the state. There is also the special question of the application of these questions to Adivasis - who, while some would like to see them as being no different to the mainstream, have special provisions within the Constitution and also within international human rights covenants to which India is a signatory. It is therefore of the greatest importance that the case being heard now is not seen as being simply another technical (or even political) matter, such as the also-current dispute over the Krishna river waters.

The order of the Court will also be yet another vital watershed in a dispute that has now been going on for a long time - not just since the 80s, as is often thought, but for some 40 years, since the early 60s. On the one side of the dispute, and dam, lies a State whose ruling sections have not merely fought for this project - for a high dam at this site - but have pinned their own hopes and reputations on winning the case (and their argument that a high dam is both necessary and justifiable) and also the State's economic future on the project. Generations of Gujaratis have now been brought up on this. There are sizeable numbers of big farmers and big industrialists located in the region immediately around the dam in southern Gujarat, and along the route of the canal that is meant to carry the waters to Kutch and Saurashtra, who stand to benefit a great deal from having the waters diverted to their fields and factories. Not to speak of the whole range of contractors, politicians, and bureaucrats for whom this mammoth project has been a money-spinning scheme. The stakes for Gujarat, and for this entire set of actors, is therefore extremely high.

On the other hand, while obviously not the only issue which has riven the State in this time, the way the Narmada question has been used by politicians at various times has contributed strongly to the contentious relations Gujarat has with its neighbours, and to intense tensions within the State. The issue has been used both for mobilising beneficiaries in its favour and also for vicious diatribe against the project's critics, for unleashing intimidation and repression, and also for depriving the rest of the State's planned economy over decades so that the project could be built. Resentment against this treatment has been brewing, and has only decisively surfaced recently, with important civil and political formations from Kutch and Saurashtra - ironically, precisely the parts of the State in whose name the project is justified - demanding redress of the situation immediately; including those aligned with the ruling party. Among other sections, the debate and the Narmada project have also split - perhaps fatally - the important Gandhian movement in Gandhiji's own State (with some keeping to the Gandhian principles of opposing large centralised projects but with others coming out in favour of the project, in defence of the State).

On the other side of the dispute, the outcome will be historic for the people of the valley, for the NBA, for Madhya Pradesh, and in a general sense for State politics in India. This has to be taken one by one. It is perhaps obvious why the outcome is of importance to the people of the Narmada valley, but this still bears a little expansion. The precise outcome is of vital importance first to those who have not yet been displaced but will be if the project goes ahead. The decision on the height of the dam is crucial: a lower height (say of 110 metres against the planned 163) would mean a greatly reduced number of people being displaced. This is especially so since the upper reaches of the proposed reservoir are the most densely populated - and so a proportionately larger number of people will be spared.

Secondly, the Sardar Sarovar, although a giant dam in its own right, is only one of a huge network of dams (some 3,300 in all, large, medium, and small) planned to be built in the Narmada valley as a whole, as a part of the Narmada Valley Development Project. It is also the furthest downstream, and the design and functioning of all the dams are interdependent. (So far, only a handful of the other dams have been taken up.) The project as a whole will in principle involve the displacement of something like two million people. The decision on the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam will, therefore, both have some direct impact on the NVDP as a whole and also set a precedent; and it is therefore of relevance to the future of a much larger number of people than are affected by the Sardar Sarovar project alone.

On its part, Madhya Pradesh - which is the State that stands to gain the most from the NVDP as a whole, but is also the State to suffer the greatest inundation by the Sardar Sarovar reservoir - has said to the Supreme Court that it is willing to forego its benefits from the SSP in exchange for a lower height (and therefore less displacement and destruction), and has also argued that a reduced height will not affect Gujarat's share of the water; but Gujarat has so far refused to accept this formula.

Third, the outcome of the case is of course of great importance to the NBA, and to its future, at several levels. By going to the court for a resolution of the issues that it had till then raised `on the streets' and in other arenas of political resolution, it in fact tied its own hands for the duration of the court case, with regard to the SSP. (Recall what happened when some of its leaders and supporters, such as Arundhati Roy, tried raising questions about the Supreme Court's interim order in 1999: They were charged with contempt of court.) If its arguments prevail on the Court, then it will be faced with the question of how to handle the outcome - of how to sustain a mass movement when the declared objective (of stopping the dam's construction) would seem to have been met, even if only temporarily, pending the Court's review. On the other hand, if the Court rules against it, or arrives at a compromise, it will be faced with a very delicate situation, at several levels. Should it challenge the Court's final orders, through mass resistance?

In considering this, it needs to be appreciated that going to the Court at the height of mobilisation is a very unusual step for a mass movement to take. Among other things, the step speaks volumes for the respect that the NBA as an organisation has for institutions of state, no matter what its critics might say. It also says something about the nature of the movement that the NBA is, and also something perhaps for the state of the movement by 1994. For any other litigant, the conventional course would be to follow the dictates of the Court; but for a civil or political movement, it raises an extremely important issue: can a movement be expected to abandon its cause if the Court rules against it? These hearings are therefore a milestone of unusual importance for the NBA, and indeed for all those involved in (or interested in) civil movement and civil politics.

(The writer is an architect who is currently working on the history and dynamics of popular movements in India.)

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