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The Hindu on : Setting a tide mark - II

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Thursday, March 09, 2000

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Setting a tide mark - II

By Jai Sen

THE OUTCOME of the final set of hearings in the Supreme Court in the Narmada case is also likely to be important for the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) at another level. The mass base of the NBA in the Sardar Sarovar Project mobilisation is made up of two main sections, the Adivasis living in the hills on both sides of the river, in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra, and the Patidars living in the Nimar valley of Madhya Pradesh. One of the important social contributions of the NBA has been to bring together these two communities, which have historically been opposed. (In history, the Patidar farmers first took over the lands of the Adivasis who had till then lived in the valley, and then went on to exploit the labour of the Adivasis coming down from the hills looking for work).

But in the present context, it is important to note that although the NBA is known more in terms of defending the rights of the Adivasis (which is the case in part because it is this conflict that has so far reached an acute stage, with the Adivasis living closer to the dam site and therefore facing submergence first), the Patidars also form a crucial part of its constituency.

Aside from also providing mass support, this section plays many vital roles in the movement - of sustaining it with second line leadership and activists, with grain and other food as required (especially during the many mass mobilisations that the NBA has organised in the valley), and with vehicles and key other material resources. These are things that only a more prosperous community can provide.

If the SSP is cleared to be built to its full height, then both the Adivasis and the Patidars will suffer, and heavily; but if the Supreme Court decides on a lower height as a compromise, then it is the Patidars alone who will benefit, since the reservoir will now no longer reach as far up the valley as before and it is they who largely occupy the Nimar valley that is further away from the dam. An important strategic question for the NBA is, therefore, whether those Patidars who are not affected by the modified project, or who are less affected, will then still stay with the movement - and if they do not, how this will affect the strength of the movement in relation to further mobilisation.

In this context, it is also important to realise and note that as opposed to the Adivasis of western Madhya Pradesh, who have traditionally been marginalised and ignored by mainstream State politics, the much more prosperous Patidars - as a middle caste in mainstream Hindu society - are well integrated in both the economy and the politics of the State and region.

Indeed, the Patidars of the Nimar region have as a community been periodically agitating for a reduced height for the Sardar Sarovar dam, from as far back as the late 60s, mobilised by different sections at different times. Their area is also, as stated, fertile, prosperous and dense; and it is not cynical to speculate, perhaps, that the Madhya Pradesh Government may be fully aware of the political value of fighting for a height of the dam that will save this community, or at least a good section of it - aside from whatever other merits a lower dam might have.

The Court hearing outcome is also of considerable importance to Madhya Pradesh as a State, in terms of the civil and political society within the State; and in a broader sense to civil and political developments in the country. Madhya Pradesh is one of the few States in the country that was not formed out of the storm of `language (read ethnic) politics' that engulfed the country in the 50s - and to a large extent, it is today not threatened by this, unlike other large States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. (That it is in some ways a residual State, left over from the partitioning that took place at that time, is another matter).

Arguably as a consequence of this, its positions and presentations in the Narmada debate - by definition an inter- State matter, since the river flows through or past three States - have never had the militant ethnic/subnationalist quality that Gujarat's positions have always contained; its rhetoric has never been as shrill. There are some (including prominent Gujaratis who were involved in the negotiations) who have considered this to be a sign of weakness in inter-State politics; but especially in today's context of heightening fundamentalism and communalism, there are many reasons for instead regarding this as being a positive quality, and even an important achievement.

There are plenty of problems in the way the Madhya Pradesh Government has handled its share of responsibility towards the people of the State who have been and are being displaced for the Sardar Sarovar project, as well as in the resettlement and other issues arising in the case of the other Narmada Valley Development Project-related dams in the State (Barna, Tawa, Bargi, and now Maheshwar, among others). But in the present case, the fact that Madhya Pradesh - prodded severely by the very public campaign taken up by the NBA - has decided to stand up to Gujarat's shrill and threatening arguments and to put forward arguments for reviewing the project on the basis of a rational and reasoned plan, is of considerable importance, both for civil politics in the State and in a wider context.

Finally - in terms of why this is a historic juncture - is the degree to which the struggle over the Narmada has come to be symbolic of a wider struggle in the country, and indeed in the world more widely, for socially and environmentally sustainable development; and also of the rise and assertion of civil movements and of civil politics at local, national, and international levels, and of the forging of new political space. There have been very few specific issues in the past many decades - indeed, if ever in history - that have been taken up in so many fora and at quite so many levels; ranging from the technical to the environment to human rights concerns.

There are extremely few civil movements anywhere which have led to the withdrawal of as important and powerful an institution as the World Bank (and also Japan's ODA) from a major project with a client as important as India; or which have triggered quite so wide a range of policy reviews as this experience has. In general, it can be said that this contribution to the democratisation of large projects, and thereby to society, at local, national, and international levels, has been one of the most important roles of the NBA.

The outcome of the hearings at the Supreme Court will not seal the future of any of these processes, nor dictate them; but certainly, it should be expected to give us a tide mark, which will be widely observed.


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