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The Hindu on : Reply to a tirade

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Monday, May 15, 2000

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Reply to a tirade

By Shripad Dharmadhikary

IWAS dismayed to see the article ``Dams & Activism'' by Mr. P. V. Indiresan carried in your paper dated May 5, 2000. Ostensibly, he tries to make the point that we cannot do without dams if we are to quench the thirst of the millions. This argument, particularly the plea that the Sardar Sarovar Project is essential, is based on misconceptions and misinformation.

Mr. Indiresan's thesis ``... where there are social activists, there will be increasing number of social conflicts'' is astounding. With one sweeping statement, he has tried to dismiss all social activists as gluttonous vultures, waiting to prey on the decaying carcasses of societal problems, even initiating social conflicts to satisfy their base needs. He says, ``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?''

To put the record straight, there was an intense struggle by the people affected by the Mulshi dam in Maharashtra as early as the 1920s; there were spontaneous agitations launched by the people affected by virtually every dam - the Rihand, for example - even without any ``anti-dam activist'' being present. If these protests did not attract the attention of the media and the nation at large, it was because they were muted by the Nehruvian euphoria of post-Independence India and the (low) status accorded to tribals and other rural people in the general scheme of things - something which has begun to change a little only now.

To come back to Mr. Indiresan's statement: ``Did the displacement of tribals create the activists or did the activists create the displacement problem?'' He would have us believe that all social activists are immoral and decadent enough to generate social conflicts to keep their jobs. Certainly, one does not deny the presence of a black sheep in any profession - including civil engineering - but that cannot become an excuse for tarring everyone with the same brush.

Mr. Indiresan says, ``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...'' ``Interesting''? - What a quaint adjective to use when we are talking about the devastation of the lives of lakhs of people. The people displaced by the Bhakra dam are still running from pillar to post to get proper rehabilitation. So are those displaced by the Pong dam, the Koyna, the Bargi and the other big dams.

He says, ``The relationship between social activists and social issues is a mutually beneficial one. The two reinforce and nourish each other... On the other hand, the relationship between critics like social activists and doers like the engineers is quite different. Activists proliferate when engineers increase but engineers dwindle when activists increase.'' The definition of social activists as ``critics'' and engineers as ``doers'' exposes a lack of understanding on his part about the roles and functions of both. I have seen hundreds of engineers who critically analyse issues - and social activists who ``do'' a large number of very important and useful things.

I am an engineer and also social activist. Several of my colleagues in the Narmada Bachao Andolan too are engineers. The distinction Mr. Indiresan is making between the doers and the critics is artificial. In any case, in society, there is need and a role for both - those who do and those who critically analyse. Indeed, a proper ``checks and balance'' system requires that those who critique are not from among those who do. This is the logic of an independent judiciary, and of an independent audit system. Yes, what is to be ensured is that those who critique are doing so based on accurate information, rigorous analysis and a sense of social justice. The critique of large dams is based on long years of arduous study, both theoretical and on the ground, helped no doubt by the fact that many ``anti-dam activists'' are also engineers. This is why the critique has found a resonance and is becoming so effective.

Mr. Indiresan then laments that civil engineers were a respected breed half a century ago, and are now being abused. He demeans the profession of civil engineering by equating the whole of it with builders of large dams. Civil engineers build roads, bridges, public buildings, water delivery systems and small dams also. Certainly most of the profession is not the target of abuse. However, any profession, if it is not open to legitimate criticism and is unmindful of the serious social and environmental consequences of its work, will be the target of not abuse but intense and strong criticism. Whether this criticism becomes abuse depends upon how it is received - whether it is received with an open mind or with obstinacy and arrogance. Sadly, a large number (though certainly not all) of the dam builders have adopted the latter attitude.

The community of large dam builders is not only the ``I only want the world to be a better place and my country to progress'' type of dedicated and honest engineers. It is also a community which has people with large vested interests, which deals with contracts worth thousands of crores of rupees and all this does have a bearing on their motives - again, for many though certainly not all. So if Mr. Indiresan is worried about the abuse that civil engineers are facing, it may be better if he advises the community to be more open, more contemporary, more self- critical and less arrogant. The same would apply to social activists also.

Now to the point he makes right at the beginning of the article - that the issue of displacement is merely one of dispute with the tribals not wanting to let go of their property; and the picture portrayed of the tribals as selfish people insisting that no one but us will use our river, etc. This betrays such an ignorance of the current power structure in society that it would be laughable to think that this is even possible.

Mr. Indiresan's statement also betrays a lack of understanding of why large dams are being opposed. It is not only due to the devastating impact they have on the river bank populations; it is also because of the grave environmental impacts of blocking a flowing river: the effect on flora and fauna, collapse of rich fisheries, destruction of estuarine ecological systems and sea water ingress.

Now to the last parts of Mr. Indiresan's arguments. First, the ridiculous one that the delay in the construction of the Sardar Sarovar is responsible for drought in Gujarat. Even if the Sardar Sarovar had been completed as per the plans, only 1.6 per cent of the cultivable area of the Kutch, and nine per cent of that of Saurashtra, two most drought-prone areas, would have benefited. This too is based on several assumptions which are now found to be not valid. By pursuing an obsolete, top-heavy, engineer-driven water policy, and by diverting huge amounts of funds in the last decade for the Sardar Sarovar, the Government is left with no money for genuine solutions. That is the real tragedy of this drought.

The last point raised by Mr. Indiresan is that ``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 history, more good than harm has come about when people have been uprooted from their homes.'' This was what the white man said to justify his colonies - that he was actually rescuing us natives from a similar stultifying existence and making us human by introducing the white man's customs and religion. Mr. Indiresan's attitude is no different. Of course, he probably feels that if the tribals shift to the slums of the capital cities and root around in urban garbage bins, they will be able to realise their full potential. By his logic, the Government should embark on a spree, uprooting millions of people from the rural areas, hills forests and thus do ``more good''. Or maybe he believes that our society is so egalitarian that the tribals shifted from the river banks will be provided housing on Prithviraj Road in Delhi or in Malabar Hill in Mumbai?

I would like to sincerely thank Mr. Indiresan for revealing something which I had long been curious about - the secret of the success of Ms. Medha Patkar and Ms. Arundhati Roy. According to Mr. Indiresan, this clearly lies in their uprootment and migration from the village. This gives me great hope for, I too have migrated from my village, and now know that I only need patience while I await the same kind of success.

(The writer is an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan.)

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