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Tuesday, January 2, 2001

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Kuldip Nayar

Seldom do cause and person converge in such a manner that the two are indistinguishable. When they do, they produce a human rights activist like Medha Patkar. She epitomises the struggle and sacrifice of the uprootedfrom their land and environment. Hers is a voice which has made more and more people ask whether the dam is the only option to store, divert or transport water?

The Narmada is her laboratory where she has experimented with truth and courage to show that a better quality of life is for all, not some. Human beings are not dispensable, however big the project be in size or gains. Her Narmada Bachao Andolan is a testimony to the sufferings of tribals and others who have said they are not grist to the mill of beneficiaries.

Medha has made so much impact on the world conscience that the International Commission on Dams and Development was constituted with her as a member to find out how best to develop or use water and energy resources with or without the dam. The commission has come to the conclusion that if nations do not master technology, it will master them. "Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable," says the commission. At the same time, it says: "In too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary and high price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment."

Medha too has called into question the lack of equity in the distribution of benefits from the Narmada. What baffles me is that after having focussed attention on such an important point, she is frittering away the advantage by demanding a revision of the Supreme Court judgement which too has pegged the height of the dam to the resettlement of the uprooted. True, the court has allowed a slab of three metres to the already 87-metre-high dam. But the task before her and other activists is not to undo the judgement but to mobilise support in the country behind the demand that the oustees berehabilitated before the dam is permitted to be raised beyond 90 metres.

If Americans can live with their Supreme Court's judgement -- five to four -- declaring the dubious victor George W. Bush as the real winner, we can also accept the two to one verdict of the highest court in the land. The court has underlined that the catchment area treatment programme and the rehabilitation should be drawn ahead of reservoir filling. What it means isthat the environment programme and resettlement will be prior, not posterior, to further heightening of the dam. There has to be a settlement. In place of the dam, we should concentrate on the court's fiat on theimplementation of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal.

The court has again spelt out the award. Every displaced family which has more than 25 per cent of its agricultural land holding acquired will be allotted an equal plot of irrigable land of its choice. In addition, there will be a free residential plot and resettlement grant, plus one primary school, health dispensary, one children's park, one panchayat ghar and one seed store for every 100 families.

Gujarat claims it has done this for nearly all oustees. This is being challenged. An independent survey is needed to find out whether such steps have been taken to honour the award in letter and spirit. I have my doubts since there is no land available to resettle some 5,000 more oustees. Still, I shall go by what the survey says. Some eminent public figures and human rights activists, including some from Gujarat, can constitute the survey team. As the prime minister has been designated by the Supreme Court as an authority to approve further height, he should take the initiative in this.

To help the process, the beneficiaries of the Narmada water should part with some of the gains they will acquire. Perhaps, a portion of the land could be cut away from from their holding for distribution among oustees. But the first priority should be to supply water to parched throats in Saurashtra and Rajkot, the tailend of the Narmada canal system. An express channel should be constructed to take water directly to those areas. Northern Gujarat, where sugar mills have been sanctioned, should get water later.

Gujarat, which plays the role of an aggrieved party, has the most disorganised government in the country. It has done very little to put its act together. Water is important, not the height of the dam. The state should work out alternative ways to collect or impound water so that there is no more displacement. Submerging fertile land or ousting thousands of families from their homes is not the best method available to get water. The Andolan people have prepared several schemes which will provide Gujarat the same quantity of water as the dam will. The state may have won a legal battle but not a moral one. It should now sit with Medha and others to decide on the resettlement of the oustees and the collection of water.

If Gujarat is reluctant, the Centre should do so. Both the president and the prime minister have appreciated some of Medha's fears, which need to beassuaged. But from wherever we start, we should wind up the agitation against the court decision. On the other hand, Gandhinagar must declare that there will be no construction of the dam or impounding of water until the entire resettlement work, present and future, is complete.

In fact, there has to be a positive resolution of conflicts and competing interests in India. Before embarking on a project, the government should bring to the table all those whose rights are involved and who bear the risks associated with different development options. The Centre will do well to keep this in mind while enacting the Land Acquisition Bill. Voluntary organisations have drafted a model land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement bill. It seeks to ensure that no person will be ousted till he is given equal facilities and opportunities to restart his life.

The story of oustees is sad and grim. More than 1.5 crore people have been uprooted since Independence and they are mostly tribal and rural poor. Most of them have been driven out forcibly. A recent example is that of the killing of three tribals at Maikanch village, Kashipur, in Orissa. The police were on the side of the consortium which has been given mining rights in the area. Even the Biju Janata Dal has joined hands with the mining interests. Come to think of it, the case of these tribals is no different from those at the Narmada. Both want to know whether projects are for the people or people for the projects.

Gandhinagar must declare there will be no construction of the dam or impounding of water until the entire resettlement work, present and future, is complete

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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