Intel-3 The Hindustan Times
Updated 02:00 IST[Late CityWednesday, July 28, 1999, New Delhi


Development for whom?
(V. R. Krishna Iyer on the Narmada issue)

Long years ago Indians made a tryst with destiny to wipe off every tear of every tribal brother and sister because they too are equal humans. That was a historic moment of hope.

A semi-centennial of illusion has passed since; but the adivasis, with each passing day, face the traumatic portent of mass submersion as the mercilessly rising waters of the holy Narmada drown whole habitations and rare arboreal wealth in the process of impounding the perennial river!

Why does this Operation Thanatos happen in the land of Buddha and Gandhi, constitutional guarantees of protective legal egalite and right to life, forbidden from deprivation save by just, fair and reasonable procedure? Compassion and humanism are writ into the suprema lex as fundamental duties.

But yet, the pity of it! Is there no pity sitting in the Ministry that sees into tribal grief? Justice has a human heart and ‘development’ a human face if the Constitution is not counterfeit. When I wrote a sympathetic piece in a leading daily based on fundamental values, there was a rejoinder by the spokesman for the Gujarat government. I am grateful to the government for the courtesy and responsiveness shown to me. Nevertheless, certain grave issues remain to be answered, in the name of Indian humanity.

True, development is a necessity of the Third World. But development for whom and why? The bells of the Constitution, from the Preamble to the Fundamental Rights and Duties, toll for the millions in misery, the have-nots in thousands of hamlets huddled in sub-human conditions. Kulaks and tycoons and their aggrandisement cannot, shall not, override the basic needs of the bitter but voiceless victims of ‘illth’ (illiteracy, ill-health, ill-clad homelessness). It is a question of values — has every human, be he landless, the same value?

The World Bank, after an independent inquiry, dismissed the claim of rehabilitation of the displaced Sarovar ragtag and withdrew its support. But die-hard vested interests would not halt. The dam construction passionately persisted, rose to dangerous levels, reached the Supreme Court and is pending before the High Bench. Justice is what Justices do. But papal infallibility is not an attribute of the judiciary. Pragmatism makes its verdict final and if it goes wrong and afflicts humble humans in colossal numbers it is final, like other natural calamities in a world of unwitting errors, even egregious blunders.

Of course, learned judges will, with impartiality, intelligence and professional training, examine the issues involved subject to sub-conscious forces at work in every human being which do not pass the judges by. The great Justice Cardozo of the United quoted with approval President Roosevelt: “The decisions of the courts on economic and social questions depend upon their economic and social philosophy”. So the height of the Sarovar dam, decided by the judges, depend a wee bit upon the social philosophy of the robed brethren. Judges are more objective and immune to extraneous factors than politicians but because judges are men, not disembodied spirits, their judgements are inevitably influenced by their judicial character and experience. Such ‘bias’ necessarily affects all judges, as Cardozo, in his Judicial Process, felicitously cautions.

The Sarovar height will turn, in some measure, on the value assessment by the brethren on the bench as between the mass martyrs of rising, raging, surging floods and the latifundists with dreams of heavy harvests and hydro-power-hungry industrialists. Who are ‘We, the People of India’? Is there graded inequality and gross disparity among them? Whose interests invisibly influence the sub-conscious of the decision-makers, executive or judicative? We can only hope that the humane wisdom of the court helps the right to life and effective, just rehabilitation.

The court is the last refuge as the defender of human rights and must also consider the development role of rivers and the humanist parameters. A lofty moral-jural perspective, where the lowliest human, is of central concern in the Supreme Court’s functional focus. Let us trust the judicature for the nonce. Can we put faith in the assurances of rehabilitation by the politicians in power? I hesitate.

The Bargi was among the early dams on the Narmada with profuse promises of rehabilitation and planned prosperity. Now, vis-a-vis the families displaced and hamlets under water, it is unmitigated sorrow, it is said. Innocent villagers, after the turbulent impoundment and submergence, are in distress and witness to environmental calamity. Not a soul should be thrown out until complete restoration is a reality. The claim of drinking water to Kutch is a daring bluff, according to critics. Alternatives to huge dams are feasible, given an open mind and readiness to examine and review. Indeed, experts have suggested such schemes. Good faith of the governments granted, better projects need not be rejected.

In the Gandhian vision, Small is Beautiful and Big can be Barbaric. I stand for no dogma except the right to life of the least and the last Indian. Gargantuan or Gandhian — quo vadis India? For over half of a century we have believed that big dams would deliver the people of India from hunger and poverty. The opposite has happened. Big dams have pushed the country to the brink of a political and ecological emergency. They have uprooted 40 million people, most of them tribal and Dalit, from their forests and rivers, from lands and homes where they and their ancestors have lived for thousands of years. They have lost everything.

Everything. It is their children that you see begging on the streets. It is they and their children who pay our food and electricity bills. Not a single big dam in India has delivered what it promised. Not the power, not the irrigation, not the flood control, not the drought-proofing. Instead, big dams have converted huge tracts of agricultural land into waterlogged salt wastelands, submerged hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime forest, and pushed the country deep into debt. The era of big dams is over. All over the world they are being recognised as technological disasters. As big mistakes. I plead with the managers of State power: do have the charity to give the benefit of doubt.

A final thought, the court in its eclectic wisdom, I feel confident, will give serious thought as the sentinel of developmental justice to what I have spelt out with reference to that great institution to which I once humbly belonged.

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