The Hindustan Times
Last updated[METRO]01:30 IST Sunday, March 12, 2000, New Delhi


Narmada needs a historic judgement
(By Jai Sen)

The Supreme Court’s final hearing on the Sardar Sarovar case, which began on February 29, constitutes a historic moment. For, the case has a long civil and political history, and the issues it has raised are fundamental in nature and have universal relevance.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) filed the Sardar Sarovar case in 1994. Since 1985, the NBA movement has received widespread support from those affected by the project. This includes both the adivasis or tribals, who live primarily in the hills bounding the river immediately behind the dam, and the prosperous Patidar farmers and traders, who constitute the majority of the population in the Nimar valley further upstream. Also, the movement has received fairly extensive support from other Indian movements and from the intelligentsia in cities.

Outside India, the NBA consciously built links in those countries which are the major shareholders in the World Bank. The NBA’s supporters abroad mounted sustained pressure on their governments to force the Bank into pushing the Central and state governments in India to meet social and environmental standards they had agreed upon. It was because of this pressure that the Bank ultimately withdrew from the project.

The NBA has been at the crest of a wave of independent civil movements incorporating environmental, developmental, social, and human rights issues that have risen in India and abroad. And precisely because of its success in mobilising this kind of support, the issues the NBA has raised have become symbolic of a much wider universe of concerns.

The NBA has played a key role in precipitating policy reforms in institutions such as the World Bank. Public access to information on Bank-related matters, and the rights of project-affected peoples to appeal to a semi-independent ‘Inspections Panel’, for instance, were accepted. The campaign also played a central role in triggering the formation in 1998 of WCOLD (World Commission on Large Dams), a collaboration of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), an international civil body based in Geneva, and the World Bank, to look at the very future of large dams.

Large dams such as the SSP affect the lives of millions worldwide. They are also, however, major money-spinners. The stakes involved in the final hearing consequently have both financial and social implications.

Gujarat proposed the SSP immediately after it was carved out from the larger Bombay state and made into a separate entity in May 1960. The project was expected to lay the foundation for development in agriculture and industry, and help Gujarat assert its identity. In the late Sixties, farmers of south Gujarat launched an important but short-lived movement in favour of the project.

Then, the Madhya Pradesh government had strongly opposed the project, demanding that the height of the proposed dam should be lowered in Gujarat, and increased in Madhya Pradesh. This contentious issue was referred in 1969 to an inter-states disputes tribunal — the Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal — which arrived at its award in 1979. The early Nineties saw the state government demand a reduction in the height of the dam, willing as it was now to forgo its gains from the project in exchange for attenuating its harsh impact.

It is erroneously believed that the formation of the NBA sparked off the popular movement against the dam. In fact, the first protest dates back to 1961, when Adivasi farmers protested for a more just compensation package than what they had received in lieu of their villages being demolished and cleared for the dam and the project’s township, Kevadia.

Landowners in the Nimar valley, Madhya Pradesh, which is located on the wrong side of the dam, too began protesting against their possible displacement in the late Sixties, and organised themselves into the Narmada Bachao, Nimar Bachao Samiti. Mobilised by Rameshwar Patidar, till recently a BJP MP, the Samiti even approached the Prime Minister. The late Seventies saw another protest against the dam’s height in Madhya Pradesh, and this time the farmers came together under the banner of the Nimar Bachao Andolan, which the Congress had floated.

The issues associated with the Narmada were first articulated by a civil organisation in Gujarat, ARCH Vahini, which began working in 1980 in the 19 Adivasi villages in Gujarat affected by the dam. Some years later, SETU, an Ahmedabad-based civil organisation that included Medha Patkar, started providing relief to affected villages in Maharashtra — and this organisation later became the now famous Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Both the NBA and ARCH Vahini initially wanted just rehabilitation for all; the NBA, though, also demanded the right of affected people to information about the project that threatened to change their lives forever.

In the course of their sustained campaign, the NBA also exposed environmental devastation, displacement, and extensive violation of human rights in the implementation of the project. They argued that full and adequate resettlement of those displaced was not feasible, nor was the project economically viable.

And they also accused the project authorities and the World Bank of mismanagement and deception, which the Independent Review (or Morse Commission) found to be true. Arguing that the project could only be completed ‘by unacceptable means’, the Commission recommended that the World Bank step back from it.

The NBA, obviously, faced intense opposition from the project’s proponents, and were subjected to severe repression from time to time. But all this has contributed to the democratisation of project planning and implementation, at local, national, and international levels. Underlying this was the recognition of the notion that society and civil actors have a crucial role to play in planning and governance.

The Sardar Sarovar’s long history makes one hope that the verdict of the judges would contribute to the ongoing global dialogue on the kind of development we need, and who should decide its parameters.

The main actors in this case are the marginalised Adivasi communities and the middle and large farmers and traders; those supporting the project are contractors, politicians, and industrialists. The victims and beneficiaries are more or less the same in other such projects worldwide. The case, therefore, has global implications.

True, the judgement would have no legal bearing in other countries. But what must not be forgotten is that development issues in India have been of tremendous interest to people and governments outside the country, especially in the context of decolonisation in the Fifties and then the Non-Aligned Movement. For all our other weaknesses, India remains, as Professor Ignacy Sachs says, one of the ‘whales’ in the developing world.

This is also true of the civil world. The Narmada movement has now become a global symbol of the struggle for sustainable development. My own research in other countries has shown that the Narmada movement is widely known among activists and politicians alike. The judgement in the Narmada case could become historic. Just as the courts in India periodically cite cases from the House of Lords in Britain, or from the US Supreme Court, it is quite likely that this particular case too could achieve that status.

Obviously, this can happen only if the judgement addresses the fundamental issues and the universal concerns that the Narmada agitation has raised.

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