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The future of dissent
Krishna Kumar

Technobrat By Rukmini Bhaya Nair is easily one of the most innovative books to be published on education anywhere in the world in recent years. Ostensibly a diary of teacher-student interaction in an IIT class, it explores the depth of arguments used in the great debates of our times. With help from two of her students, Ramnik Bajaj and Ankur Meattle, the writer has designed the book as a map of young engineersí minds.

I use it as a ready reckoner of youth epistemology. It shows me directly, without wasting time, how debates arise and where exactly they die. Recently, when the Supreme Court gave its majority decision on the debate over Sardar Sarovar, I opened Technobrat to see what it had to offer. Here is the excerpt covering the dialogue between two students ó Vivek, who is an environmentalist, and Akhil, a pragmatist:

"Suppose you as a civil engineer are leading the construction of a dam, say the Narmada Valley project. What you need to know is that the project is socially damaging. It is bound to rob tribals of traditional rights. Often the loss is triple ó of land, livelihood and self-respect. The Government admits that it has been unable to resettle most dispossessed tribals from other such projects...

"Furthermore, the benefits of these large dams are not yet proven. Perhaps the same amount of water can be saved using less funds and with less displacement if a series of smaller, more traditional dams are built. If coercion by the IMF/World Bank is suspected, will you be party to such violence against a vulnerable section of society?"

Reaction from Akhil: "If a thief was caught and put in prison, would you compensate him for the loss of his livelihood? If not, is there not an analogy to the situation of the tribals who have no ownership papers to the land they inhabit? What proof exists that the land is theirs?"

No comments. Everyone is taken aback.

"Look, this is the business of the policy makers, to decide what to do or what not to do. They are paid for that. We are paid for implementing the decisions. So can we stop interfering in other areas of operation? That is a kind of land-grab too."

Rukmini Bhaya Nair sums up this exchange by quoting her assistant Ramnikís comment: "At the end of the day," he says, "we take it for granted that we have to do our jobs. Our task as technologists is not to question technology, only to deploy it. This was the attitude I felt around me. We donít want to commit professional suicide, do we? Gandhi is dead, we are not!"

Numerous people will agree with Akhilís advice, though they may not put it as bluntly. And Ramnikís philosophical summary tallies with the impression I get from my students year after year, though they are on their way to becoming teachers, not engineers.

In schools where my students teach, I have seen the Sardar Sarovar debate go exactly the way Technobrat records it. A pragmatic conclusion leaves the principal happy, and it gives the students a secure niche to inhabit in a turbulent milieu. Occasionally, one or two students stand up and say that they donít feel comfortable. Something is fundamentally flawed in the system, they feel, if it cannot avoid hurting so many people and the environment so badly.

These few youngsters enliven the debate, but they leave me anxious about their future. How will they cope with the pressure of ideology in the years to come? My own experience of the last few years indicates that respect for dissent has diminished even as consensus has become an ideological smokescreen.

There is evidence of Indiaís regression from an ethos in which caution against State policy was perceived as a potential corrective. The extended debate over Sardar Sarovar was a fine example of that ethos. Now the debate stands concluded with the power of authority rather than logic, and this is not the only debate to have concluded this way. There is no consensus on it even among the three judges who heard the Sardar Sarovar debate. How little respect is available for dissent was amply exemplified by Doordarshan which suppressed the news that it was a majority judgement.

Judges have access to the deepest resources of language. They can construct orbits of meaning accommodative enough to contain sharp disagreement. I am sure the three judges who heard the Sardar Sarovar case tried their best to arrive at a collective formulation. That they failed to devise one suggests how deep the disagreement must be. I am told that the dissenting judgment has little more than moral significance. Perhaps that is why Doordarshan did not report Justice S.P. Bharuchaís dissenting judgment. Let me quote a short piece from it.

After establishing the fact that a formal approval was never granted to the Sardar Sarovar project by the Ministry of Environment, Justice Bharucha says: "An adverse impact on the environment can have disastrous consequences for this generation and generations to come. This Court has in its judgment on Article 21 of the Constitution recognised this. This Court cannot place its seal of approval on so vast an undertaking as the Project without first ensuring that those best fitted to do so have had the opportunity of gathering all necessary data on the environmental impact of the Project and of assessing it. They must then decide if environmental clearance to the Project can be given, and, if it can, what environmental safeguard measures have to be adopted, and their cost."

If a dissent of this magnitude, and that too given by a judge of the Supreme Court, has no more than moral value, how do we then proceed with our democracy? Whose dissent will count if this one doesnít? In a democracy, all institutions must know what to do with dissent. Especially a court of law, whose decisions constitute a judgement, can hardly afford to assign a mere record value to dissent.

A chronology of recent years suggests that we cannot expect a sudden rise in the value of dissent in any institution. In the early Eighties, if you dissented from an impending decision, an effort was made to accommodate your stance. By the late Eighties, there was only a willingness to record dissent. In the early Nineties, you had to persist in order to get your dissent recorded. I remember engaging in that kind of struggle in the governing body of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) where I was a nominee of the Government. We are now heading towards a situation where decision-makers have no time for debates. They feel India has waited long enough. So the Sardar Sarovar project will now be completed, though the suspicion over its positive image will persist. Those of us who wanted it to be reviewed have lost, but the company we have in our general caution against projects of this kind is reassuring. It starts with President K.R. Narayanan. This is what he said in his speech delivered on the eve of this yearís Republic Day: "Dams over rivers will rise to prevent floods, generate electricity and irrigate dry lands for cultivators. But that should not cause ecological and environmental devastation, and the uprooting of human settlements, especially tribals and the poor."

Now that is precisely what is going to happen in the Narmada valley over the next few years. We shall see a vast socio-drama of human helplessness and the legitimate brutality of State power along the banks of the Narmada.

Since the matter has reached its legally permissible end, we can only introspect. Why has questioning become synonymous with hostility? Why has the State-society dialogue evolved so little since colonial days? Why is Indiaís liberal heart choking?

I can only reflect on these questions as a teacher. I feel we have spent much too long promoting mindless acceptance of the stated. We continue to confuse good citizenship with loyalty to authority. Training to speak oneís mind freely is not a priority in education. The handful of institutions which provide such training keep themselves at a great distance from the larger social reality.

In Technobrat, the second student associate of the author, Ankur, switches off well before the end, and this is what he has to say as he leaves: "Is it that we donít care? Have we completed our transition to machines or can we still feel?"

Ankurís teacher, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, carries on for another chapter and ends by quoting Mahadevi:

"O engineer of the world

Iíve run till you cried halt..."

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