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The Hindu on : The right to differ

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, December 12, 2000

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The right to differ

By P. V. Indiresan

LOKO BHINNA Ruchihi - people have different tastes. For that reason, where there is freedom of expression, there is no unanimity of opinion. That is fairly well understood. The converse, that any demand for unanimity of opinion is a denial of freedom of expression for the dissenters is not always appreciated equally well. Few people realise that while dictatorship can be absolute, freedom cannot be; the freedom any individual can exercise is limited by the freedom that others too are entitled to have. Hence, unanimity of opinion is a luxury to be found only in fascist dictatorships.

Unfortunately, intolerant culture, where everyone is expected to ``fall in line'', or stand condemned as ``sinful'', has become fashionable in our country. The current debate on the Narmada Dam is one such instance where intolerance permeates. Undoubtedly, the issue is controversial. For that very reason, there should be respect for divergene of opinion. One may question the wisdom of the others but it would not be appropriate to condemn divergence of opinion as immoral. That bound of free discussion is being transgressed by anti-dam activists. They are free to call engineers a bunch of fools but they transgress the limits of free debate when they abuse engineers as immoral.

It has been well said that while opinions are free, facts are sacred. That the rehabilitation of persons displaced by the Narmada Dam is unsatisfactory is a fact. It is equally true that the same dam confers may benefits on hundreds of times more people. Anti-dam activists hold the view that those who are displaced are poor; those who benefit are rich. So, the construction of any dam is iniquitous and should be banned, at any rate large ones must be. In their opinion, smaller systems will displace less number of people and will serve equally well if not better. In support of that argument, they cite several rainwater harvesting schemes in Gujarat and elsewhere.

They have now come up with a new calculation that large dams have contributed barely ten per cent of the increase in food production in our country. Therefore, they conclude that large dams are of marginal utility and can be dispensed with. Let us assume that this contention (that is all what it is) is correct. For that reason, and because we are currently growing more food than we can consume, why should we not decommission existing dams such as Bhakra and Mettur? (In fact, proposals for decommissioning dams are already being aired in conference circles). That will be an interesting move at least for the reason it will eliminate all inter-State water disputes, such as those between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka! That is also logical - if large dams are harmful, existing large dams must go!

Incidentally, in international usage, a dam is considered to be large if its height exceeds no more than 15 metres. Anti-dam activists use this definition and argue that India has thousands of large dams. If both this definition and the contention that large dams should be decommissioned are accepted, we will have practically no storage systems left. Is it truly the case that if all dams above 15 metres height are decommissioned, the loss in food production will be no more than 10 per cent? Can we safely assume that rainwater harvesting and other ``eco-friendly'' techniques will make up this loss? In such a case, there should be no harm in decommissioning at least the Mettur, the Bhakra and all such very large dams.

How many opponents of the Narmada Dam will take the anti-dam argument to its logical conclusion and accept that at least very large dams should be decommissioned? Liberal intellectuals are fond of making dramatic gestures. They boycott manufactures by child labour, products that result from cruelty to animals. Anti- dam activists aver that large dams are cruel to tribals. On that score, will they boycott the goods produced by large dams? Will they boycott rice grown in Thanjavur, wheat in Bhakra and sugar everywhere? Will they stop using electricity polluted as it is by generation from large dams? How many among those who deride engineers day in, and day out, give up these products which they proclaim are ``born in sin''?

There are two ways of looking at these rhetorical questions. One is to describe them as logical conclusions and the other as extreme (and hence, untenable) extrapolations of the anti-dam argument. With the utmost respect, anti-dam activists themselves initiated this form of extremist logic. It is they who started the controversy by extrapolating the rehabilitation problem to conclude that the dams themselves are harmful. Demanding that dams be scrapped because rehabilitation is bad is like throwing out the baby along with the bathwater.

A lot of fuss has been made about the height of the dam. That too is not logical. Once, it is accepted that a dam may be raised to a certain height displacing X number of people, the argument against displacing people ceases to be a matter of principle. If X number of people an be displaced, why not displace a number Y? At this stage, the issue is quality of rehabilitation and the benefit to cost ratio, not displacement itself.

What should be the nature of such rehabilitation? According to the Human Development Report, progress is mesured by three factors - income, education and longevity. It would be just and fair to insist that displaced tribals should command no less income, no less education and no less longevity than the rest of the population. Have anti-dam activists any notion of how they will induce such a transformation? Before Independence, infant mortality was nearly 30 per cent and expectancy life was less than 30 years. Now infant mortality has come down by a factor of four and life expectancy has more than doubled. At the operational level, all this progress has been due to the efforts made by scientists, technologists and engineers. However, such benefits have accrued mainly to those in the mainstream, not to those who have opted out. That is true all over the world, the most dramatic example being the case of Red Indian tribes in the U.S. In order to preserve their identity, liberal intellectuals confined Red Indians to Reservations. The intentions were good but the result is perennial backwardness.

In a like manner, the economic progress of our country has been retarded by self-appointed do-gooders who claim moral superiority over all others. At the present time, millions are too poor to buy food even though we have had a bumper crop even in a year of less than normal rainfall - thanks to the efforts of engineers and scientists. Social activists, and the economic policies they have imposed on our Governments, cannot escape blame for this sad state of affairs. Anti-dam activists come from that sad lineage. Both are basically negative. They can point out what is wrong but cannot do what is right.

Anti-dam activists are entitled to have their opinions. By the same token, they should let engineers too have their own opinions. They should also learn to accept responsibility. Let them show how to produce without irrigation as large a crop as engineers produce with irrigation - and persuade farmers to accept their techniques. Let them demonstrate how tirbals can be made to prosper as well as the rest of the population by remaining where they are and as they are. Even if they perform that miracle, they can at the most describe engineers as foolish but not as immoral. All of us, including anti-dam activists and their ``liberal'' supporters, and not excluding engineers, have a democratic right to err.

True democrats tolerate dissent, yield to the opinion of the electorate and submit to the judgment of the courts. Those who deny the freedom of differ, refuse to accept the opinion of the electorate and defy the judgment of the courts may call themselves moralists. They run the risk of becoming fascists.

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