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The Hindu on : Demolition of a dream

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, December 03, 2000

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Demolition of a dream

The six-year fight by the people of Narmada valley, to retain their land, may have been stopped temporarily, but the country is left with questions to which there can be no answers. The displacement of the tribals, sustained for generations by the local resource and skill base, sounds a death-knell to our civilisation, writes L. S. ARAVINDA.

WALKING into Khyali's home on the morning of October 19 to warm my toes by the fire, I hardly knew I was entering a different world. The basket full of fresh Ambadi leaves and the two large fish caught that morning from Khad nadi (a tributary of the Narmada), showed no sign of fading into memory.

Her uncle Bola Dahya started by telling me that people here had a remedy for every health problem. For a deep cut, for fever, for a headache, for insect bites... he described various ailments, various herbs and processes used in treating them.

Months, festivals, gods, goddesses - I could not catch all the terms and only wished I had my notebook. He had never talked of these things with me before. Little did I know I was hearing an elegy. He started pulling various twigs and shoots out from the corners of the hut in Khutavani pada, a hamlet in Domkhedi (Maharashtra, bordering both Madhya Pradesh and Guajrat). "Doctors come and go," he said, "but we do not need them."

Then in a low voice he asked me, "Bandh ko manjuri mili? (Has the dam got the go-ahead?)"

Examinations were going on in the jeevanshalas. School children went on a bijli-cycle by day, charging a battery to light their rooms to study at night. The evening breeze brought the sounds of the dhol (drum) announcing that Deepavali was round the corner. Adivasi youth from several villages were training in watershed development under the guidance of noted Sarvodayi worker Madhukar Khadse and his team from Amaravati.

We had noticed the water level dropping but continued our work, oblivious to the fate Their Lordships in Delhi had sealed for this valley. As news reached, representatives - two from each village - held an emergency meeting to decide how to deal with the post-court phase of the Narmada movement. As villagers came to terms with the Majority Judgement, written by Justice Kirpal and signed by Chief Justice Anand - which they experienced as a Death Sentence - they saw that it not only set them back the six years in which the case was in Court, but set the country back a century or more - in human and natural sciences, and in civilisation.

In a decided step backwards from democracy, secularism, and science, the Majority verdict makes non-issues of the major questions raised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

For instance: Where is the required Environmental Clearance for the Sardar Sarovar Project? As if arguing on behalf of the Government, Justice Kirpal cites press notes and letters of thanks referring to this clearance, but no actual document of clearance. Indeed, it is rendered irrelevant, Kirpal pronounces: "The project was cleared when Nehru laid the foundation stone...." What business had Nehru to lay the stone without clearance through the democratic processes? He may have thought in 1961 that it was a future "temple", little knowing that in 2000 it would result in a development fundamentalism that makes a mockery of Modern India.

Sorcerer-like, the Court/government, producing land and water by decree, states that large dams upgrade ecology and displacement is good for people, especially tribals. Thus they dispose of fundamental questions like the capacity of water in the

Narmada, availability of land for rehabilitation, and the reliability or competence of the government in keeping its word. "It is for the Government to decide," thunders Kirpal. "There is absolutely no reason to assume that it will not function properly."

So powerful is the Government, according to the Honourable Court, that it can relocate ancient historical monuments and religious sites. The sites mentioned are the Hapeshwar and Shulpaneshwar temples. What about so many hundreds of other shrines? What about the sacred places of the villagers? What about the traditional healers and medicinal herbs in the forest?

Better off without them, says the court; tribals should join the mainstream of society. Not even government medical staff could seriously believe that an improvement in health was assured by the following:

"... in the submergence villages, the tribals mostly relied on traditional healers for their ailments. Now the current scenario is that at R&R sites, health centres and sub-centres have been established." Aside from all the superstitions and supernatural powers the Court invokes, most malicious is its unrelenting disparagement of tribal culture and resource based life. Statements such as "the conditions in the hamlets, where the tribals lived, were not good enough" are rife throughout the 183 pages of the Majority Judgement.

Thus rehabilitation is a non-issue: "the re-settlement and rehabilitation of people whose habitat and environment makes living difficult does not pose any problems." That must be why "most of the hydrology projects are located in remote and inaccessible areas, where the local population is, like in the present case, either illiterate or having marginal means of employment and the per capita income of the families is low". There is no appreciation of the local resource and skill base that has sustained life for generations. (Bola Dahya can tell you his family tree back to 12 generations. He knows it by heart.) Rather, it is said to be "not fair" for tribals not to get displaced into the mainstream, even by "compulsion". This is nothing less than the extermination of a culture, a step back in Indian civilisation.

Just a few days before, we had received a friendly visit from the mainstream. A trio that set up non-formal classes for children in rural areas. "What organisation?" asked a young man participating in the watershed camp from Turkheda (Gujarat). To their reply, "Vishwa Hindu Parishad," he gasped (in English) "Oh my god." Where in these non-formal classes and health sub-centres would there be any appreciation for the tribal villagers' own conceptions of health and medicine, of life and death?

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