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The Hindu on : Dams & activism

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Friday, May 05, 2000

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Dams & activism

By P. V. Indiresan

SOCIAL ACTIVISTS draw their awesome influence from the fact that they fight on behalf of human rights and wage their war against the selfishness of property rights. That induces their admirers to think of them as an incarnation of Vishnu, protecting the weak and destroying the wicked. For instance, the Narmada Dam activists have been on the side of the exploited tribals and against greedy landowners bent on destroying the river's ecology. From that angle, their case is a straightforward fight between good and evil, on behalf of poor tribals against the moneybags of Gujarat.

Suppose we broaden the canvas to include larger areas of the country. The scenario undergoes a dramatic change. It is no longer a struggle between the human rights of Narmada tribals and the rich landlords of Gujarat. It gets now revealed as a struggle between the property rights of tribals and the human rights of poor Gujarati peasants. The battle gets transformed with water- rich tribals on one side and water-starved peasants on the other. Tribals may now be described as saying ``This is our land, our property. We, and we alone, have the right to use it. So, we will use it in any way we like; no one else has a right to interfere. If the river causes flood havoc, that is not our concern. If, thereby, ninety per cent of the water wastes into the sea, so be it. If millions and millions starve and many of them die, for want of water, that is their misfortune, not our responsibility. If they want relief, by all means find some solution but without damaging our rights over our private property.''

Isn't that funny? The same activity looks exactly the opposite merely by changing the perspective! From a narrow angle, the issue is human rights of the tribals. From a broader view, it is none other than the property rights of the same tribals! Anti-dam activists can still argue that the Gujaratis have brought disaster on themselves. They will point out that even now, there are villages in Gujarat that are managing quite well merely because they built their own small dams. That is true. Once again, that looks good because the perspective is, once again, narrow. The villages with local check dams have some water, but not plenty of it. They can survive an occasional drought but not a prolonged one. In any case, the fact remains that the tribals have excess of water, far, far more than what they can use. Yet, they do not agree to let others have that water though they do not need it themselves and others need the same badly. That is a repeat of the story of the Mahabharata - war between those who will not give up their excess property and those who have no assets and want a share!

Social activists and social conflict reinforce each other. Quite naturally, social activists flourish wherever there is social conflict. That is understandable. It is not so evident that where there are social activists, there will be increasing numbers of social conflicts. When dams were built in the early years of the Twentieth Century, there were no anti- dam activists. So, there were no conflicts about displaced people. Then, which is the cause and which the effect? Did the displacement of tribals create the activists or did the activists create the displacement problem? In fairness, the activists can argue, ``The problem of displacement was always there. We have only discovered it, not invented it. The fact that no one discovered the problem in earlier years does not mean that it never existed.''

Fine! It would be interesting to study the fate of those who were displaced when the Mettur Dam, the Bhakra Dam and the like were built. How badly off are those people now? Is their condition worse off than it would have been if they had continued the way their forefathers did - eking out a living under uncertain rains? Or, has it become better than what it would have been if no dam had been built? In hindsight, in the light of what we know now about the uses and abuses of large dams, was it wise to build them? If the answer is ``No, those dams should not have been built'', the unfairness of displacement existed even in those days but was not discovered. If the answer is ``Yes, those dams should still be built'', the problem of displacement is a matter of dispute about property, not one of a conflict between good and evil in the way Medha Patkar and Co. assert.

The infringement of property rights is naturally extensive and localised in the case of big dams. With small dams that infringement is actually much more extensive but distributed widely. So, though the total quantum of infringements is much less with big dams than with small ones, the issue stands out only in the case of large dams. Something similar happens in an air crash. That causes huge dismay, but the far larger numbers that get killed daily in road accidents do not cause even a ripple. The same is happening with large dams. If the objective is minimising displacement, anti-dam activists should be against small dams, not against high ones!

The relationship between social activists and social issues is a mutually beneficial one. The two reinforce and nourish each other. Social issues bring credit to social activists and social activists bring out social issues that, but for them, would not have come to light. On the other hand, the relationship between critics like social activists and doers like engineers is quite different. Activists proliferate when engineers increase but engineers dwindle when activists increase. That is like the relationship between fleas and dogs. The more dogs there are, the more fleas there will be, but the more fleas there are, the less dogs there will be! In other words, activists check that the society does not patronise too many engineers, but engineers cannot at all check that activists do not do too much harm.

Half a century ago, civil engineers were a respected breed. People like Sir M. Vishveshwariah inspired awe: the dams they built were worshipped. At that time, it would have been unimaginable that civil engineers would ever be abused the way they are now, or that big dams would be condemned as demonic; that at the most, small dams would be conceded as tolerable. Will the same fate overtake information technology which is in fashion these days, and the Narayana Murthys and the Premjis are the glamour boys the same way civil engineers used to be not long ago? Will the love affair with information technology collapse the same way it has happened with irrigation dams? Will a new breed of Medha Patkars and Arundhati Roys erupt to wage a relentless war against information technology? It would be difficult for most people to visualise now that anyone would like to destroy information technology. Yet, who knows, fifty years hence (even ten years hence because IT moves faster), the sociological fashion may be ``Down with computers. If we must have computing devices, let it be calculators at the most! Down with the cultural pollution of the internet, let us get back to letter- writing!''

We are currently in the midst of a major drought in Gujarat. Ms. Medha Patkar has been mainly instrumental in keeping the Narmada Dam height below the level at which water can be released. So even the water that is there in the dam is not available for the parched peasants of Gujarat. If that dam had proceeded on schedule, the ill-effects of this drought would have been largely mitigated. After 11 continuous years of good monsoons, we should prepare for poor monsoons in the coming years. So, the country should wake up to the realisation that we have no alternative but to build large storage dams to quench the thirst of our burgeoning population.

Anti-dam agitators did highlight the insensitivity with which displaced people were handled and the damage caused by unwarranted secrecy. However, they went too far in questioning technical decisions about which they had zero competence. The solutions they profer are not the optimum for humanity at large; not the best even for the tribals themselves. The culture of tribals is so stultifying that they will never achieve their full human potential so long as they remain stuck in their present homesteads. All through the history of civilisation, more good than harm has come about when people are uprooted from their homes. In fact, the most glorious pages of human progress have always been preceded by the trauma of migration, forced or assisted.

Does that sound callous? Think! Who would have heard of Medha Patkar or Arundhati Roy if they had not migrated and had, instead, stuck to their villages?

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