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Three cheers for the losing legion
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Friday, November 10, 2000

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Three cheers for the losing legion
Max Martin

Apropos the two pieces carried in your editorial page taking contrary positions (`The dharma of dams' October 22; `The karma of dams', October 25), neither of the two writers adequately touched on the role of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Long after the giant dams on the Narmada will have contributed their share to flooding, irrigation, power generation and impoverishment, those who have valiantly resisted them will be remembered for telling us about the great dilemma of development.

The NBA took the development debate to classrooms, boardrooms and had it broadcast live in our drawing rooms. While doing so, it has also carved out a political niche for scores of similar resistance movements, often fighting against State power, unheard, unseen.

Giant development projects often involve a Faustian bargain, as they transform environments and overwhelm peoples' lives for the "greater common good". Development-induced displacement involves over a million people worldwide every year. Dams, mines, roads and wildlife parks in India have displaced over 20 million people since Independence. Three-fourths of them were never rehabilitated, by the government's own admission. During decades of research, Walter Fernandes, former head of the tribal studies programme of the Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi, encountered many of them in urban slums. He notes that development processes have their clearly identified winners and losers. For instance, the tribal people make up for a little over eight per cent of India's population, but they account for over 40 per cent of the people displaced.

NBA could provide a political dimension to the dilemma of development in India. First, it could bring together a broad spectrum of environmental as well as human rights activists for the common cause of equitable and sustainable development. Second, it filled the gap left by mainstream political parties in addressing the ironic issue of marginalisation due to development. Third, NBA effectively questioned State power by resisting the forced relocation of citizens. NBA's bandwagon included Greens with tinges of mild saffron to deep red, conservationists and people-not-parks types. It forged links between environmental and human rights movements. In NBA rallies, fisherfolk and landless labourers rubbed shoulders with jean-clad urban environmental activists sporting `Save the Tiger' t-shirts.

These "peoples' rallies" never wanted politicians or their symbols. Remaining away from politics in a democracy has its great demerits. Still, by taking such a position, NBA and its allies could hopefully force the mainstream parties to re-examine their attitudes on key issues.

Last, but not the least, NBA's protest has a conceptual dimension. As the tales in the Mahabharata, the Old Testament and the Quran show, the expansion of State power often involved exile, exodus or forced relocation. Such forced resettlement is an ultimate expression of state power. It displays the state's monopoly over the management of force and its will to enforce ambitious engineering feats bulldozing people livelihood rights. Conversely, to be forcible resettled, or worse, to be displaced and left out of the resettlement process as is more likely in India, can be one of the most acute expressions of powerlessness. Resisting this process, therefore, is a powerful expression of defiance. That is what marks mythical heroes.

Political theorists would note that depriving citizens of their freedom and property involves the violation of the Hobbsian social contract between citizens and the State. Resistance movements force us to go back to books to learn the relationship between people and the State. Three cheers to NBA at least for stimulating a debate.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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