The Hindustan Times
Last updated 02:00 IST Thursday, August 24, 2000, New Delhi

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An invisible renaissance
By Medha Patkar

The Government of India is seeking a dialogue with militants in Kashmir, even with those operating at the behest of Pakistan. The Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the Centre, have come to their knees; they are ready to concede the atrocious demands of a thug like Veerappan.

Paradoxically, the people in the Narmada valley, struggling to safeguard the resources of this country, have to confront submergence under water due to the Sardar Sarovar project, as it happened on July 15 and after, as it happens every monsoon.

What have the people in the valley been demanding? They have been seeking a legitimate role in the decision making process on issues concerning development, their destiny and resources; and their protests have been peaceful, within the norms of our democracy. But for the last 15 years, the State has dismissed the pleas of the non-violent movement for a review of the controversial Sardar Sarovar project which was pushed without basic impact studies, and still does not have a formal and legal clearance. Instead, the Centre, and the Governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have used their might to defame and suppress the people’s movement, often with police brutality.

They don’t have the guts, nor the will to establish the truth related to displacement and rehabilitation. There is no land to settle thousands of displaced people. And now, as is the norm every

monsoon, they are trying to evict the people with the threat of submergence.

In the Kargil war, the soldiers, mostly from the households of peasants and backward classes, gave their lives for the elite, who are ever eager to rush into the glitz and cacophony of globalisation. The tribals and peasants in the beautiful Narmada valley are fighting yet another war with their lives equally at stake, to save their land and villages while the governments are demanding their sacrifices to benefit the urban-industrial elite.

When superficial issues like the arrest of Bal Thackeray and parliamentary brawls catch the headlines, basic issues of the people are marginalised. And yet, the struggles have to go on. With the accelerated pace of encroachment on their sources of livelihood, the toiling people have no option but to fight for survival.

Due to the developmental policies pursued during the last 53 years and especially with the advent of globalisation and liberalisation, the displacement from fields and traditional occupations has become the fate of large sections of people. With no or little access to the emerging economy of money and market, the natural resource-based communities such as agriculturists, fishworkers and forest dwellers have to routinely face the worst case scenario, not just in terms of everyday hunger, but also in their cultural uprootment. Certainly, their distress is as intense as the atrocities inflicted on Dalits and minorities caused by upper caste private armies and organised communal forces.

The satyagraha in the Narmada valley has raised serious issues regarding development and nation building. It is challenging the outright violation of constitutional and human rights. Several crucial issues regarding our democracy have not been addressed since the last five decades. Now, it’s the people on the margins who are asking these difficult questions.

It’s in this context that the Narmada satyagraha has been on since 1991. For the last ten years, with a willingness to face rising waters and imposed evictions, the people in the valley, along with many other movements in India, are asking some basic questions: “Whose nation is this? Who is the ‘public’ and what is the ‘purpose’ of a democracy? What sort of a nation are we making and for whom?” If our political system fails to respond to these queries, then the nation will stand discredited in the eyes of all those who are the eternal victims of this top down paradigm of ‘progress’. All democratic institutions will have to face this prospect.

From 1987 onwards, the struggle in the valley, corresponding with similar struggles against destructive projects, has been striving for a truly democratic decision making process on the issue of sustainable development. The issues brought forth by such struggles that emerged during the Eighties and Nineties have been seeking a ‘modern’ (if that means contemporary) and rational model of development, apart from an equitable, just and humane polity as the core value of a society.

Apart from asserting the pre-displacement rights of the affected people like the right to information, meaningful and decisive participation, proper evaluation of their needs and resources, and community rights to natural resources, the Narmada movement linked displacement with the so-called ‘public purpose’ of the project. This linkage is important since the project and the consequent displacement has been justified on the basis of ‘public purpose’ and ‘national interest’.

The affected people’s refusal to take displacement for granted while linking the issues of displacement and ‘public purpose’ have enraged powerful lobbies — engineers, bureaucrats, politicians and financial vested interests — at every level. Inversely, this has been a major step towards the realisation of democratic rights.

Thus displacement does not remain just a technical and managerial problem but is seen in a totality. It depends on the kind of projects we undertake and our resource matrix. How much of land can feed us and also provide employment? Do we have the freedom to involuntarily change economies and cultures of the toiling sections? Do we have a framework of equitable sharing with all, including the landless and destitute? What are the environmental effects of the project and can we afford these? Are the benefits real and lasting? These questions just cannot be sorted out with a ‘management approach’; it is essentially a political issue dealing with ground level reality.

The project protagonists tend to generalise the benefits and particularise the costs of the projects. The tribals and farmers have been challenging such presumptions. “Are not our resources, our lives and rights part of the nation and national interest?” they ask. Are not the well-settled villages and forests, fertile lands, the abundant crops, unpolluted, free flowing rivers, clear, transparent skies and air, the ambience and landscape in which the people still live — part of the national wealth?

The rapid democratisation and assertion of identity among the hitherto depressed classes will inevitably intensify this critique? “Whose benefit, at whose cost? What is a nation? If you benefit at the cost of our lives, rights and resources, then the very concept of nation and nationhood has to be looked into.” This is the new consciousness which no regime can crush anymore.

The struggle of fishworkers across the Indian coastline, including the critical one at Umergaon, Gujarat, and by farmers in Karnataka and Kerala; the protracted battle of the workers of Chhatisgrah; the Dalit and backward class movements on issues ranging from grazing land to right to information, are some of the landmarks of the new consciousness. These discourses have been trying to shape an alternative paradigm for the nation. Every democratic institution will have to answer these grassroots urges: political parties, Parliament and legislatures, policy-makers, judiciary, and the civil society. This is crucial if we want to build a sane society.

In Domkhedi and Jalsindhi villages on the banks of the Narmada, people have pledged to continue satyagraha (peaceful insistence on truth) with nyayagraha (insistence on justice). We are engaged in Nav Nirman (constructive action) where villagers are creating sustainable alternatives in energy, agriculture, education and health, nourishing the forests or building micro-hydel projects, as the recent one inaugurated on Independence Day. Hundreds of children at the Jeevan Shala (schools for life), run by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, celebrated the International Peace Day, on August 6, linking the issues of war and violence, nuclear weapons and destructive armaments to the need for non-violent revolutions integrating nature with human society.

Last year, the satyagrahis confronted the submergence, but did not budge even when the water reached their necks. This year too, we are prepared to stake our lives for the sake of justice and democracy. This is the way common people will protect the ‘Nation’ in their dreams. This is our contribution to people’s politics, this is our effort towards social renaissance, this is also our share in the international fight against the ‘global powers’ out to capture new ‘consumer markets’. It’s a battle leading us into a real war.

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