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The Hindu on : Some visits that spell significance

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, May 15, 2001

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Some visits that spell significance

THE YEAR 2000 saw some very interesting happenings, Korean unification, public sentiment overcoming totalitarian regimes in Indonesia and Serbia, fining of cigarette companies to the tune of 4 billion dollars and the accelerated growth of Internet technology kindling hope in the world of a change, possibly for the better in the coming millennium. As the sun set on the 20th Century, we in India were witnessing seemingly unconnected events. Glitter and publicity surround some, optimism and despair others. Sometimes, the same event triggered both extremes of responses, optimism and hope in some, despair and futility in others.

Four events appear to be of great significance. Apparently unconnected, is it possible that they reveal a pattern, a standpoint from where the nation functions? Among all this the visits of two Bills, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, probably have middle order significance. However, examining these two visits, the air around them and how our country received them, it may be an opportunity for some reflection, an understanding of how we are today. The story of how we are is probably the only thing that educates, other than the sledgehammer blows that occasionally rent the fabric of society, calamities, wars, suffering beyond endurance.

Our reception to both Bills highlights the value that we attach to the nation, the U.S. and the richest man in the U.S. One was the head of the nation and the other, an empire called Microsoft.

It does appear intriguing that both Bills chose the closing months of 2000 to visit India. There must be some significance to this. Such confluences are truly stellar and of course we should be cautious about reading too much into this coincidence. But one can't help wondering. Is India suddenly displaying certain important signs, signals that are unmistakable. National economic resurgence does not happen without a shrewd business head.

For instance, could it be a coincidence that Bill the President visits India the year after he visits China. The size of the market is directly proportional to the population it appears. It has not been so in the past. The small populations of the western nations have been the biggest markets so far. Both China and India with their regulations have been sticky markets for the world. The most successful players have been the arms dealers followed by Coca Cola and Pepsi. Other businesses till recently found the situation too difficult.

Is the visit of the two economic stars a signal that Ministers are finally turning in? Is it that the dollar Bills wish to encourage the song being sung by the rupee ministers? What are these words of the spoken and unspoken song?

You are a rich nation, rich in culture, You have great potential, we see signs of an economic upsurge.

We would like to have a relationship of mutual benefit, we place great value by this nation and its capacities.

The non-verbal sounds are eloquent.

We see a big market. We see big profit, you are ready for our game, WTO and World Bank have finally softened you, you are on our playing field.

Is it not strange that one businessman visits India for a day and all Chief Ministers cluster in Delhi? A Chief Minister in India represents a State with a population that is comparable to European nations. Bill stays at Maurya Sheraton and the CM's scurry decides among these elected representatives, whom he will need. Are the States an opportunity for Bill or is Bill an opportunity for the Indian States? This author may be pardoned for feeling that this one event is the final limitation of a large, multicultural nation. We were once lorded over by merchants of the East India Company. Our ministers with the west India, asking them to return not for 400 years but for a thousand years. And in this hi-tech age, when face-to-face conversation can be had over tele-conferencing facilities that are in every State capital, we see rupee ministers paying respects to the dollar czar who flies in for a day from Sydney.

I wish each CM had agreed to listen to Bill on video conference. I wish CMs had wanted for Bill to find enough time to visit them rather than attending his party in our capital. I can't help feeling dismayed at this weak capitulation. The U.S. President, Bill Clinton, found more time in India and mingled with common people at least on one occasion. But Bill Gates found one day of entertainment in Delhi and had the ministers dancing to his tune. He decided whom he would meet and who was not important enough for the honour. I do not know what we can do to change this equation. Is this the final throwing away of all self respect? Is this nation of 1 billion people meekly swaying to an alien orchestra, a proft machine? The arrogance and assurance with which the industrial revolution swept the earth has left us gasping for fresh air, thirsty for drinking water and weak with poisoned food. Raised standards of living for a few Western nations have meant inequitable sharing of resources for the rest. And now we are being visited to the big orgy. You, a Billion people, you can do it too. Look at us. You can get here too.

The strength of this nation once was to question and enquire. Can we sharpen doubt and enquiry rather than encourage tame following of a recent culture, a culture whose 500 years leave little to be emulated.

Interesting dimensions

Wooing the West, entering the ballroom of development, we appear to be taking all the right steps. However, the low key visit of the Russian President Putin adds an interesting dimension to India's position, vis-a-vis the West. Our relationship with Russia is important. An ancient defence treaty and a committed position on Kashmir are the obvious bonds of friendship. However, the announcement to build nuclear reactors, one every year, over the next 10 years raised many eyebrows. The Russian commitment to sell us enriched fuel for some of our reactors is also part of this movement.

These decisions seemingly set India free from an unwilling West for supply of nuclear fuel. The decision to build more reactors, however, seems to be against the groundswell of public feeling. It appears to throw caution to the winds and boldly strike out. The nuances of the decision should not be overlooked.

Also, Russia is gambling on its vast un-used, unusuable land resources and the cold extremities. It is taking a calculated risk of permanently writing off some of its land for finding the economic veins. Low levels of radiation exposure will be unavoidable. Well, if it can't be avoided it must be endured for a better future, for a restoration of dignity, to become once again a global player. For India, what does all this mean? For a glorious future we are willing, the political leadership is willing to expose our population to a low level radiation. But what about nuclear waste storage, treatment and disposal? We are not blessed as Russia is with vast frozen areas, but have fertile land that supports life everywhere. We are also not blessed with a small population like Russia but are saddled with a billion population that is still growing.

Scrambling between dollar Bills and rouble Putin will surely weaken us. Maybe this is the time to be restrained and fall back on our strengths. Welcoming ideas but not getting affiliated, encouraging open debates, trusting our population and its wisdom.

The Narmada issue

Narmada flows from Amarkantak westward from Madhya Pradesh into Rajasthan and Gujarat. A dam, a large dam is built. It has had a chequered history. The dam was profound. The World Bank stepped in with funds. Environmental and resettlement issues embarrassed the WB and it withdrew its support.

Gathering around Medha Patkar, a band of people, not an illiterate group, but educated individuals, several from IITs, chose to study and work with people in the Narmada Valley. The NBA is not politically affiliated and does not accept funding from foreign countries. It would not be difficult for Medha Patkar, particularly after receiving the Magsasay award to mobilise funds from some rich individuals abroad or funding agencies. The NBA has studiously avoided this avenue.

This group has educated the valley and the nation on issues surrounding large dams as well as the specific effects of the Narmada dam. The wide debate one encounters in the valley is an enlightened one. People do not merely speak about `yes dam' or `no dam.' It is not a black and white issue. People speak about the objectives, alternative ways of meeting these objectives, cost- benefit analysis. It is a mistake to look upon the Narmada Valley resistance to the dam as uninformed opposition. For the first time in modern India we have people, people who are farmers, tribals, joining a debate and there is a broad convergence. Indian bureaucracy and politicians are unused to such a phenomenon.

Dams and large projects displace large populations. If this was America or Russia or Canada, the numbers displaced would probably be insignificant. But like China, we are an ancient civilisation on fertile land. The numbers involved get uncomfortably large whenever a project is large. It would seem that in this vast country, land is easily found. What is the problem with resettling a mere 50,000 families?

We must reflect on what the MP Chief Minister has repeated many times the statement that there is no land available for resettlement. If we do not treat this as a political gimmick, then we must quickly see that suitable land must already be settled land. People and communities have established themselves on all, even remotely, habitable land. Our dwindling forests and encroachment into forests are also proof of pressure on land. The larger number of disputes in this nation has to do with land boundaries, encroachment rights, etc.

To the mind conditioned to think in numbers from behind a desk, land means power, property, wealth and little else. There is no relationship with land. To the farmer and the tribal, the soil gives them their food, the live near the land. The rains mean life and not irritating puddles. Land means people and neighbours and markets and festivals. To be alienated from land, not by debt or hardship, but by legislation that seemingly offers an alternative, is a heavy psychological blow. To be given money instead of land means little. Money quickly vanishes and the families find themselves on the fringe of a city seeking some work, any work. One of the crucial stands of the NBA has been to ask for land in exchange for land. Let the dam come up, let the cities profit, let the desert bloom. It is a pity that lovely forests will be submerged. No one seems to care. But give land to the displaced, land where they can eke out a living.

Is the judiciary in a peculiar situation? Is there a need to send signals to the dollar Bills that we have a working democracy and that the nation is willing to take hard decisions? The new dollar Bills may not remember that American Indians were herded into reservations and later their rights denied when minerals and uranium were found on their land. The dollar Bills may not wish to be reminded of how treaties among whites are one thing, but treaties with the American Indians are another issue. One needs to remember how certain lease agreements with native tribes are expiring and soon there will be questions of returning land to its owners. Justice is catching up and so is law.

Do we wish to do the same? The equations are slightly different but the pressures are the same. Cities have large densities of population and have a great hunger and thirst for energy, water, food and services. Large cities have large footprints. The task of keeping a city going makes demands on the areas around. This task acquires a subtle importance because of the numbers involved.

Therefore the few thousands, scattered over a large tract of land, appear to be unreasonable when they do not move. They seem to be blocking the common good. India should become modern. We should stop thinking in terms of percentage and think in terms of numbers. It is modern to protect the right of an individual, even one individual, however difficult. We cannot wear the mask of democracy and be ruthlessly trampling on the constitutional rights of individuals. Can we value the substrata population? They point to something extraordinary.

India must decide what kind of modernity it wants. Should it become a nation of consumers who will devastate the land and waters for future generation? Or consciously decide to exercise restraint against the tide of modernisation. After all, modernisation may be a blip in the face of our 5000-year history. The world's 6 billions cannot draw energy and resources on the scale of the U.S. or Western Europe. One wonders if even the dollar Bills recommend this.

Whether the Narmada dam is built or not, we have reached a turning point in our development efforts. No large project will ever after be easy, if at all one comes up. The nation's soul has been stirred from elegant drawing rooms to classrooms across the nation. Villages tuning into news on radio and television must surely share the debate. Maybe the desperation of the political forces is this.

Medha should not go in for Jal Samarpan however futile the situation looks now. That would be the final triumph of the large projects lobby. There are no cogent debates among the establishment. In the land of Gandhi, who said that India lives in her villages, we seem too ready to give cities a preponderance.


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