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The Hindu on : A role for all

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, August 13, 2000

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A role for all

PICTURE a grand old Mahua tree on the banks of the Narmada. The local people are calling this "The Tree of Resolve". Its trunk is covered with wooden plates, bearing the names of villages that now face submergence under the waters of the reservoir created by the Sardar Sarovar dam. Those name-plates were ceremonially nailed to the tree on July 15 this year, as a symbol of the people's determination to resist the project that threatens their homes. Among the witnesses to this event was a former Chief of Naval Staff.

Admiral Ramdas was there to inaugurate this year's Satyagraha of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). This may seem like an incongruous sight to many people - an elite officer standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are deemed rebels by the State. For the NBA it is nothing new. Over a decade and a half this struggle has excelled in involving a wide range of people across class and cultural lines.

Some of this involvement, by the urban elite, may be symbolic. But the NBA has partly succeeded in renewing the spirit of India's freedom movement when there was a vital role for everyone - peasant, prince, professional and merchant alike. Now the very future of the struggle for an alternative, more creative development, depends on expanding the scope of such multi-level alliances.

The NBA is perhaps the best illustration of both the scope and limitations of this process. The NBA is a mixture of village- level mass mobilisation, urban middle-class activists, diverse professionals and international political activists of various hues.

This combine has brought the issue of displacement, caused by development projects, to the centre stage of public life. It has made destructive development a familiar phrase.

It is now commonly acknowledged that about 40 million people have been displaced by the projects and processes of development. But these overwhelming statistics tend to leave many people cold. How do you creatively relate to such staggering information? What is the way from here to a more humane and creative development? Is it largely the NBA's job to produce a road-map for this journey?

Let us address the last question first. The adivasis and peasants whose homes and livelihood are going under water are entitled to resist this displacement without having to offer an alternative to the dam. One, because they were never consulted about the project and how it would affect them. Two, because several different surveys have shown that there is not enough land available to ensure adequate rehabilitation, for all affected people. This is why the Supreme Court has not been able to permit construction of the dam wall beyond the 88 metres it allowed last year.

However, many of the urban middle-class activists of the NBA have simultaneously been involved in the protest activity as well as the search for alternatives. These efforts have been recorded in the final chapter of a new book about the Narmada struggle. The River and Life: People's Struggle in the Narmada Valley is written by Sanjay Sangvai, an NBA activist and is published by Earthcare Books.

This year's monsoon satyagraha also has several symbolic illustrations of the quest for alternatives. Perhaps for the first time, the village of Domkhedi now has electricity. The Satyagraha hut is illuminated by drawing electricity from a pedal power generator. About 20 minutes of pedalling generates about one hour of light for a small household. A micro-hydel generator is being installed to generate about half a kilowatt of power, enough to light up a hamlet. But it is clear that these constructive efforts of the NBA are a small part of the global quest for humane alternatives.

Secondly, there is the question of just what is the way to creative development at a macro-level? There are many answers to this question. Most of them draw on experiments in alternative modes of energy generation, water-management and land use. At present this knowledge is scattered across the world. But several attempts are being made to form a coherent holistic macro-vision out of these micro-experiments.

One view holds that it is the duty of the elected government to distill the wisdom of these experiments and mould public policy accordingly. Another view holds that this is not enough and a critical role will have to be played by urban professionals and representatives of industry. This approach rests on the conviction that even a few enlightened members of the elite can, and should, play a creative role in building a more equitable and just order.

This is the kind of social energy which produced the first Citizen's Report on the State of India's Environment, published by the Centre for Science and Environment in 1982. A more diverse group of multi-talented citizens should now work on a comprehensive documentation of alternative perspectives to India's infrastructure needs - with primary focus on water, energy and land-use.

This exercise cannot be limited to just gathering and analysing information. Its primary objective must be to raise awareness about viable alternatives that are currently being ignored and thus to alter policies. This ground work is critical for making India a truly "developed" country. That is, a place where there is livelihood for all. Without such endeavours there is no way to prevent the human toll of displacement from rising beyond the millions already suffering.

This would be a creative and powerful response to the tragic conflict epitomised by the saga unfolding in and around the Narmada valley. The time for such endeavours has never been better. For, this year's drought in Gujarat has been marked by two sharp contrasts.

The government has held the NBA responsible for the water-starved conditions of the state. But at the same time there has been a spurt of media reports about various green and water blessed communities in Gujarat. These literal oases are the successful result of local watershed management efforts made by dynamic individuals and activist groups over the last five to ten years. This does not mean that all of India's water needs can be solved by maximising local catchment systems. But if such systems are in place there may be no need for "mega" projects of the kind that were designed for the Narmada valley some 25 years ago. That design is neither viable nor sustainable.

The seeds of several technological alternatives are already available. But the planting and growing of these "seeds" demands a far more intense involvement by a wide range of highly creative people - peasant, professional and merchant. Together, they would have to build a new political culture that is committed to meeting the needs of all rather than just satisfying the greed of a few. It would mean that most of us will learn to live simply so that all people on earth may simply live.


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