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The river runs through them
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Monday, October 23, 2000

Silicon Valley Saga Series

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The river runs through them
Nandini Ramnath

Before the last nails are hammered in, the final requiem written, the post-mortem filed away for posterity, a story or two about the Narmada river, its people and the movement that its waters have nurtured.

Bhimbhai, who drives around curious city slickers, journalists and volunteers around the Valley, was curious about Medha Patkar's family. Medha's annual action of satyagraha and, ultimately, jalsamadhi had resurfaced with the first few raindrops and Bhimbhai, a resident of Kevadia Colony, was worried. When he heard that she had an aged widowed mother, a brother, his wife, their child, he fell silent. You know, he said, I didn'tknow this. Didi has never told us about them.

Obviously, Medha survived the jalsamarpan that year. The question now is, will the movement she has so carefully crafted, tenuously protected and passionately defended, survive too?

Already, the saga of the rise and fall of the Narmada Bachao Andolan is being penned with flourish, glee, scorn and quiet despair. For 14 years, ever since the first scattered protests against the dam surfaced in Maharashtra and Gujarat and were later woven into the NBA's grand canvas, all eyes have been on the Valley. The debate on the three big `D's -- dams, development and displacement -- hasn't quite divided opinion into simplistic pro- and anti-dam positions. There was the pro-dam but anti-project position; the anti-dam, pro-andolan position; the pro-protest but iffy-about-NBA position, and, of course, the pro-dam, anti-andolan position...

Will the judgement the Supreme Court delivered on October 18 draw the curtain on this debate? With further construction of the Sardar Sarovar Project permitted -- subject, of course, to environmental and rehabilitation review procedures (with the prime minister being the final arbiter) -- the Big Dam is finally legitimate. Will the jubilant cracker bursts of Gujarat's political and business elite outlive the magic of the moment? Will the euphoria make the going even tougher for those who don't see development in a linear fashion?

Will those lives whose insignificance is often dwarfed by the sheer logistics of crore-guzzling projects now be relegated to the margins? Some of them have occasionally had the opportunity to invade the drawing rooms and chat salons of the powerful but, by and large, they've remained cold statistic and stumbling blocks to ``national progress''.

Sure, the debate has occasionally been derailed by the NBA's seeming intransigence, the shrill and chauvinistic pro-dam rhetoric and, most recently, Arundhati Roy's chic polemics. But out of this debate emerged issues that governments, planners, economists and lending agencies don't routinely dismiss as eco-terrorism or, alternatively, eco-romanticism, any more.

Sustainable development is not just so much jargon, and rehabilitating those who are uprooted by a project that has very little to do with their lives has now come to be recognised as an in-built feature of every blueprint. These days, it's cool to care, and to be seen as caring.

It's ironic and tragic that a movement that has contributed to this consensus in developmental discourse has got so little in return. The other out-of-the-courtroom verdict that was passed almost as soon as the Supreme Court gave its ruling is that the movement has lost the ground beneath its feet; that the activists should either put up with an ever-growing dam or just leave. It's an epitaph the NBA didn't choose, and one they'll fight in typical fashion. It's a question of who blinks first.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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