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March 3, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Thirty Words About A Dam

When I read the Morse Report, back in 1992, I remember feeling stunned.

For one thing, it is an immensely readable book. This was not at all what I had thought a report on a dam project would be. I expected a dry tome filled with arcane statistics and obscure engineering details that I would have to struggle to get through. Instead here was this book that I often could not put down, that read suspiciously like a thriller.

For a second, it opened my eyes. I knew governments were capable of apathy and misgovernance and lies, but those had remained somewhat abstract concepts to me. Morse gave them meaning and weight. That, by writing about their ongoing consequences: resettlement shoddily done; plans for taking drinking water to thirsty parts of Gujarat non-existent ("Despite the stated priority of delivery of drinking water," the report observed, "there were no plans available for review"); mandatory assessments and reports not completed; benefits overstated and costs understated.

I believe it was this report that first convinced me that I must never -- never -- take a government at its word. On anything. For that persuasion alone, I silently thank Morse all the time.

For a third, it is thorough. Assertions are backed with data, not just airily made. Every aspect that Morse examined gets careful, considered attention. All the material submitted to his team is discussed before reaching a conclusion. There is no evidence of haste, nor of half-measures. Nor are its pages littered with figures upon figures, designed to confuse and overwhelm. The book gives the impression of sober, thoughtful and complete analysis, presented so an ordinary reader can follow along.

For a fourth, it is filled with astonishing findings stated in clear, unequivocal language. This one is my favourite:

* "The Sardar Sarovar Projects are likely to perpetuate many of the features that the Bank has documented as diminishing the performance of the agricultural sector in India in the past."

Think about it: a dam that will diminish -- diminish! -- agricultural performance.

In those 30 cold words, Morse simply demolishes the claims of mighty benefits from the Sardar Sarovar dam. Now it has been eight years since that report. But in those years, I don't believe there has been a more pithy statement of what's wrong with the dam. Nor has there been anything that would, today, cause Morse to change his mind. That dam is still deeply flawed.

This week, the Supreme Court begins "final hearings" on a comprehensive petition on Sardar Sarovar. Many arguments and figures will fly back and forth. No doubt you've heard them all, so I won't go over them here. Let me try, instead, to place Morse's criticism in the context of some other criticism of the dam.

Of course, the reaction to any criticism has typically been innovative dismissal of the critics. Medha Patkar is a mere "publicity-seeker." Does Arundhati Roy think her Booker Prize "gives her the right to comment on national issues?" And Morse? On October 4, 1992, just months after the report came out, then Gujarat CM Chimanbhai Patel pronounced angrily, if irrelevantly, that Morse had no right to tell us "whether tribals are Hindu or not." (Morse had not done this, but dear Chimanbhai knew few would call his bluff and read the report. He also knew well the emotional power of his pronouncement, which power I'm sure is working on some reading this right now).

Still, there's a limit to innovation. How do you handle all the others who protest the dam?

For example: during last year's monsoon, in tumbledown huts strung along the banks of the river as it approaches the Sardar Sarovar dam, you could have found hundreds of such protesters standing in the river. Some stood for several days, holding hands and singing songs of solidarity as the water rose to their chins. Eventually the police arrived and dragged them out.

Many more like them have staged other protests at other dam sites along the Narmada. On February 24, thousands sat down in front of the gate to a hydroelectric project near the Maheshwar Dam in Madhya Pradesh. They intend to say there, says a press release that came my way, "for the next few months or as long as it takes to achieve their demands."

And I remember always the protest gathering I once travelled to in Bijasen, upstream from the Bargi dam, a few hours from Jabalpur. The day before I got there, the police had visited -- wading into the crowd with lathis and fists, arresting several people in an attempt to break up the rally. A 70+ year-old woman, four feet and very little, bent over a stick, showed me her forearm: smashed in two places by a police lathi. It might have scared her away, but no. The tiny grandma was there that day with her broken elbow and hundreds of her fellow-villagers, determined as ever to keep the protest going.

And I thought then, as I think now: OK, so Medha Patkar is a publicity-seeker. Fine, so Arundhati Roy should stick to her Booker prize. All right, so Morse tried to tell us about Hinduism and so his report deserves no attention whatsoever.

What about these protesters? What prompts many villagers to spend days in water that rises steadily about their bodies? What motivates a large gathering to sit in front of a hydel project, fully prepared to be there "for the next few months"? What drives a shrivelled old woman on through lathi blows that break her bones?

Yes, let's completely ignore Roys and Patkars and Morses. But can we, can you, also ignore the others? After all, surely a desire for publicity alone wouldn't keep people in water for days on end. Or fortify a little old lady enough to absorb flailing lathis, to forget a cracking arm.

When will we recognize the spirit, the seriousness, in her? When will we understand that people like her raise real issues, demand answers they have never got?

Every other way of reaching you and me, and the dam-builders, has failed. Credible and well-known people -- Morses, Roys and the like -- have carried her message but are ridiculed. What's left to a frail grandmother in rural MP, about to lose her home, but to sit down and protest? To keep up her protest even if the police breaks her arm? What's left, except this desperate effort to get you to understand her concerns?

And these, as I see them, are her concerns.

One: if she is to lose home and land to a dam, she wants to be compensated. No doubt governments make promises about such compensation. But there's an irresistible urge to look at the record of such compensation that Indian governments have built since Independence. It is not a pretty record.

Two: given the impact that record will have on her life, she wants a voice in whether the dam is built at all. She doesn't want, any more, that decision to be taken by someone else, somewhere else. She must be part of it.

Three: since that dam will turn her -- not you and me browsing our Netscape bookmarks, but her -- destitute, she has misgivings about what we mean by development as represented by that dam. Like you, she has no desire to go back to living in trees: like you, she wants electricity and drinking water. But so far, development has only meant dams where she lives, her fields submerged, so you and I can follow links on the Web. She is saying, broken elbow and all, enough. Enough of this development.

Four: she is fed up of being told what's good for her. She wants to decide for herself. She wants the freedom to pronounce, as you and I do so easily, that "some people must sacrifice for the good of the nation." Some other people, of course -- isn't that what we city-folk mean anyway? some other people? -- for she and her colleagues are tired of sacrificing.

Is any of this unreasonable? Whatever your answer, look again at Morse's 30 words. What are these dams "perpetuating"? What is the "good of the nation"? And should you stand for it?

Really, that little grandma wants to be like me. Like you. How do you feel about that?

Dilip D'Souza

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