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Wednesday, March 10, 1999, New Delhi


The threat posed by big dams
(Deepti Priya Mehrotra)

The religion of the indigenous people of this land has valued and honoured the forces of nature — recognising that the human being is a part of the whole — not master of the universe. This understanding has sustained a way of life based on an intricate utilisation of natural elements.

The natural elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether/space — have been revered, respected, observed, worshipped, conserved, and used with extreme discretion. A balance has been maintained wherein the activities and life of each individual person and every community of people replicates and reflects the macrocosmic balance of matter and forces.

This religion of the indigenous people has been displaced by the builders of ‘modern’ India. From sustainable and deeply ecological practices which have evolved over the centuries, with traditions so subtle and sophisticated that they are in themselves a celebration of life and consciousness, we have been moving to a situation where we are attempting to conquer nature. But who is this ‘we’ and what are the consequences of this attempt? This ‘we’ represents the powerful sections in India today: those who take decisions. These are decisions, which mould the lives of millions. These are decisions by which the nation is being ‘developed’, its populace is being ‘modernised’, and the GNP is growing steadily. In so ‘developing’ the nation, one question is seldom asked, yet remains quietly insistent — who is paying the price for development?

Why should some people pay the price, while others reap the benefits? In other words, why should some grow wealthier while the majority is getting poorer? Why is the knowledge-system that has sustained the people over the centuries being treated today with scant respect? Whether it is the farmers’ understanding of the land, or the midwives’ understanding of the body, the villagers’ understanding of how to collect and conserve precious rainwater or the old women’s knowledge of forest conservation, it is being dishonoured and completely ignored. ‘Education’ in modern India means the displacement of indigenous systems of knowledge and structures of livelihood, with no adequate systems suggested or provided, by which productivity can be maintained or increased.

People such as those who form the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) have been attempting a radical redefinition of the very notion of modern development. They are calling for a basic respect of people’s traditional r,mental rights. The accent is upon ‘appropriate modernisation’, which will allow a continuity with indigenous life-worlds, while allowing appropriate changes in technology, education, agriculture, industry, as well as politics.

The indigenous understanding of water management has a certain logic, which is quite different from the one inspiring our policy-makers. Traditionally every drop of water was revered and respected, worshipped, conserved, and used with intelligence and gratitude. The modern Indian state, however, is ‘secular’ insofar as these aspects are concerned. Water — as also soil, air, and in fact ‘human resources’ — are conceived of only in purely utilitarian terms. It is to be harvested only for purposes of creating power for heavy industry and irrigation for big farms growing cash crops.

While evidence is piling up for the viability and desirability of small dams and alternative systems of water harvesting, irrigation and power generation, the high priests are sermonising on the big dam. The National Commission for Integrated Water Development, which is composed almost exclusively of civil engineers, is struck by the big dam syndrome. The commission lacks basic information about the state of the people in the areas which will be inundated if big dams are built.

In Tehri’s Bhagirath valley, people have sustained an ecologically sound, low-resource lifestyle for centuries. Yes, their economy is one of basic subsistence — it meets the needs of the people but does not feed everybody’s greed. Even now, the villagers in the valley do not even need to lock their doors.

Lakhs of villagers are to be displaced for the sake of big dams. How are they to be rehabilitated? There is no reliable answer. Yet, the Supreme Court has ruled that construction work should begin for raising the dam wall of the Sardar Sarovar project by an additional 5 metres. The NBA speaks for the marginalised sections of the Narmada valley, when it notes that the increase in height from 80.3 m to 85 m will submerge Bhil and Bhilala tribal villages in Alirajpur, Kukshi and Badwani tehsils in MP, the Akrani and Akkalkuva tehsils of Maharashtra and the Chota Udepur and Nanded tehsils of Gujarat’.

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