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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : The role of protest

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on indiaserver.com
Friday, September 29, 2000


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The role of protest

By Kalpana Sharma

THE PRAGUE protests against World Bank and IMF policies have drawn a mixed response. Predictably, the protesters deem the event, when thousands of people representing a range of interests marched on the streets of Prague, a ``success''. They argue that such demonstrations put pressure on the Bank and the IMF as well as the richer nations to address issues of poverty and indebtedness. On the other side, there are those who argue that such protests are pointless - The Economist describes the protesters as ``a mere rabble of exuberant irrationalists on the streets'' - and that they do nothing for the cause of the poor for whom both the protesters and the Bank express concern.

Regardless of the merits or demerits of the latest spate of anti- capitalist and anti-globalisation protests that have gathered steam across the world, the role of protest in changing national and international policy cannot and should not be overlooked. In the absence of such democratic resistance, many more anti-poor, environmentally-damaging policies would have gone through without questioning. Perhaps the most outstanding example of the result of such resistance is evident from our own experience in India. It is now accepted that the agitations against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada highlighted the enormous social and environmental costs of large projects that had been left unaddressed. Although the dam continues to be built, albeit slower than its proponents would like, there are few who will deny that the environmental and social aspects that were belatedly integrated into the project only happened because of the resistance on the ground.

It is also now a well-accepted fact that the World Bank, which had invested in the SSP and in many other similar large dams worldwide, had to rethink its involvement in such projects. It revised its resettlement and rehabilitation (R & R) policy drastically after the experience with the SSP and has now made R & R a precondition for all the projects in which it is involved. The World Bank's second look at its investment in large dams also led to the formation of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) jointly with the World Conservation Union two years ago. This is an attempt to bring in all the stakeholders involved in dam building - investors, engineers, environmentalists, representatives of affected communities, and academics. The Commission has already done some painstaking work in tackling what appears an impossible task - to arrive at a set of guidelines that could assist Governments and funders as they decide whether to construct large dams. On November 16, the final report of the commission will be released in London.

But in the meantime, individual reports are already being made public although they will not indicate the final conclusion of the Commission. For us, the India report is of particular interest against the background of the controversy over the SSP and lately the Maheshwar Hydel Project. The India country report is extensive, looking at many different aspects of large dams built in this country since Independence. It has individual chapters such as an historical review by Mr. R. Rangachari, a chapter on the framework of law, policies, institutions and procedures by Mr. Ramaswamy R. Iyer, and a long section on the environmental and social impact of large dams, the Indian experience, by Mr. Shekhar Singh and others.

Despite the divergent points of view represented by the individuals who have worked on this report, some of the agreed conclusions authored jointly by Mr. Rangachari, Mr. Nirmal Sengupta (who also has a chapter in the report), Mr. Iyer, Mr. Pranab Banerji and Mr. Shekhar Singh are significant, especially on the issue of displacement. Looking at the social impacts of large dams, the authors conclude that although there are beneficial and adverse impacts, the costs of the latter have not been reflected in the cost-benefit ratio of projects. At most, the financial costs of resettling the displaced are factored into the financial analysis of a dam. And this, too, only after 1978. There is no data to assess the fate of those displaced by the 2500 large dams built before this date.

Even after rehabilitation was accepted as a necessary cost, there have been problems with implementation. ``In many projects, there are complaints that many of the promised benefits did not materialise. Where land was given, it was reportedly often of poor quality. The promised infrastructure, people complain, is missing or of poor quality and even basic necessities like water, shelter and economic survival are not always provided for. It is difficult, from whatever perspective one looks, to find many success stories,'' state the authors. The report also concludes that in addition to the lack of transparency and the corruption that hamper the rehabilitation process, the distribution of benefits from such projects has exacerbated social inequities with a disproportionately large number of those who pay the costs being members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Despite the controversies generated by the displacement caused by large dams such as the SSP, the report holds that there has not been any effort to lay down guidelines that would correct some of these inequities or to accommodate social costs while deciding on the viability of large dams. ``It has not even resulted in the acknowledgement of the fact that gross injustice has been done to those who have had to bear the costs of large dams in India,'' states the report. The authors conclude that ``There is a need to do all this and to follow it up, even at this late stage, by a sincere attempt to rehabilitate the millions of `development refugees' created by large dams. And it is time to consider stipulating that, until this is done, or at least well begun, no further displacement would be allowed.''

The report also contains important sections on the legal framework and points out, for instance, that the Land Acquisitions Act is outdated and needs to undergo major changes. It also stresses the need to incorporate greater transparency and processes of consultation with the affected communities. On the environmental impact of dams, the report reminds us that until 1978, no formal environmental clearance was required for dams. By then, of the over 4,000 large dams in India, 2,500 had already been built. Although the dams built since then have had to go through environmental clearance, their adverse impact on the environment had not been negligent. A major factor for this is that the guidelines for conducting environmental impact assessments (EIA) of river valley projects were formulated in 1978, and despite being ``sketchy'', have not been amended. Furthermore, construction of dams often begins even before the clearance has been obtained. By the time the EIA is ready, the project is a fait accompli ``because the Government does not have the political will to abandon a project on which considerable costs have already been incurred''.

Worse still, the EIAs are hastily done and often by ``consultants'' who are hired and supervised by the project authorities! This clearly makes a mockery of the concept of an independent EIA that would actually determine the shape and the future of a large dam. The final nail in the coffin of environmental assessment is the fact that there is no system to monitor whether the conditions laid down for the clearance are actually being implemented nor a system of withdrawing clearance if they are not.

All this sounds familiar. But in the past, such statements came from the anti-dam lobby. The fact that experts in the economic, legal, social and environmental aspects of large dams have come to the same conclusion is, indeed, noteworthy. In fact, it brings us back to the Prague protests. That whatever the nature of democratic protests, the substance of the objections that people raise has to be heeded by those who make policy within nations and internationally.

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