The Hindustan Times
Updated 02:00 IST[Late CityTuesday, August 17, 1999, New Delhi


Don’t shoot the messenger
(Sumir Lal)

It’s so easy, isn’t it? To dismiss the 400-odd citizens who visited the Narmada Valley last fortnight as “eco-romantics” and to discredit author Arundhati Roy as “a silly girl looking for fashionable causes”? If only Roy’s critics and others who view the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) as a nuisance would look at the message instead of shooting the messengers. And if only the cause was really that fashionable.

To an unbiased observer, it is especially painful that men of the stature, credibility and expertise of Yogendra Alagh and B.G. Verghese should dismiss a mass protest without hearing the essence of what it is saying. It is equally distressing that a leading newspaper chain should join the provincial press in carrying motivated stories that discredit a people’s movement while falsely presenting a rosy picture of the administration.

Last Wednesday, a week after the “Rally for the Valley” exited the area, the authorities quite literally opened the floodgates and flushed out Medha Patkar and over a hundred protesters camping at the doomed villages of Jalsindhi and Domkhedi. A do-or-die protest of this nature must surely have a basis; it cannot be dismissed as a gimmick of romantic ecologists.

Indeed, one does not have to be a romantic to suggest that when a gigantic river system is to be suffocated by over 3,000 dams for howsoever noble a purpose, there are bound to be deep seismic, geological and ecological impacts. The least that is called for is a thorough study predicated on worst-case scenarios before work commences. This is no romantic notion but layman’s common sense, which has somehow eluded the experts.

Note that one is not entering the debate for or against big dams. What one is pointing to is government callousness and duplicity in executing a project; a long-sustained mass struggle in protest; and the deliberate refusal of opinion and policy makers to recognise this situation.

The Narmada controversy has by now generated enough documentation to confirm that work on this hugely impactful project commenced without adequate study of the social, financial and environmental consequences; that the lakhs of affected people have been subject to repeated fraud and broken promises; that rehabilitation has occurred only partially on paper (to the satisfaction of experts in Delhi) but hardly on the ground (as the rallyists discovered); that entire categories of affected persons do not even exist for the authorities (two ironic examples: those evicted from their lands to rehabilitate those evicted by the dams, and those evicted to build housing colonies for the construction staff); that a very rich agricultural and civilisational resource base is going to be submerged; and that basic issues like the right of the affected people to be consulted and informed have been repeatedly ignored.

(Technical questions have also been raised about the very feasibility of the projects and the credibility of the promised benefits, but we shall leave that debate too to the more knowledgeable.)

Medha Patkar’s NBA has emerged as the chief forum and articulator of all these issues. Those who dismiss it as a club of troublemakers or just another woolly-headed NGO or an anti-development group not only trivialise a mass struggle, but blind themselves to a phenomenon that has much significance for the nation.

The rallyists discovered that an overwhelming majority of people in the project-affected areas actively backed the Andolan, cutting across caste, class and political affiliations. The mobilisation is at a mass, social level: every household, and every member of every household, is involved and aware. This has made the movement collective, informed, and politically conscious.

Considering that the issue is so emotive — loss of homes, land and livelihood and violation of rights at the behest of a callous, bullying, duplicitous government — the protest is peaceful in both practice and precept. In a democratic set-up, it is nothing less than silly to dismiss or ignore a mass movement with such credentials.

What a movement like the one in the Narmada Valley does is carry the voice of the people, the ones most directly affected by development policies, into the realm of public debate and policy making. It ensures that policy is negotiated in an informed manner by those formulating it and those affected by it.

Development economist Devaki Jain, who accompanied the rally for the Valley, wrote on her return: “The Narmada Andolan story, its historical course, its method of informed negotiations, its broadening the issues — from oustees to science and technology, to educating the state with good humour and seriousness — with a view to influencing policy, is perhaps the most elegant case study to illustrate one of Prof. Amartya Sen’s political points, that public policy needs the intervention of public action, the transformation of a lobby into a participant in policy.”

Thus, what the rallyists saw was a movement that was enabling those with the biggest stake in development (and the manner of it) to take on the power lobbies that dispense it. Crucially, it is ensuring the people participate in this process through democratic means at a time when all the formal democratic institutions — a cruel executive, indifferent legislature and procedure-bound judiciary — have shut them out.

The people of the Narmada Valley have intense grievances; they are being destroyed in a manner that should send a chill down every citizen’s spine. Yet, through their peaceful, mass, 15-year struggle, they have shown maturity, patience, understanding of the nation’s imperatives, and democratic spirit. The nation should cherish and respect such citizens. To crush them, and to dismiss those willing to hear them as publicity-seekers or eccentrics or romantics, is to insult the very building blocks of our yet-evolving democracy.

But the all-powerful phalanx of government, development planners and contractors is intent on doing just this. One wishes that since they are so obviously incapable of factoring human costs and benefits into their work, our nation-builders would, henceforth, resort to such disruptive projects only as a last resort. (They should first look at alternative modes instead of asking the displaced persons to suggest them, as is being done in this case.)

And one wishes that the Supreme Court, in order to settle this dispute between the state and common people, sends a representative to visit the Valley and hold public hearings there to determine the level and manner of rehabilitation — the point at issue in the current court case. Then it should invoke the power of contempt for the purpose it is meant: to ensure that justice is done.

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