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March 24, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Ashwin Mahesh

Water's Edge

It is the byword for obstructionism according to some and the very definition of callous government according to others. This spring, the much-debated Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada river, comes calling again on the nation's Supreme Court. It is an intriguing battle, pitting ordinary citizens backed by celebrated personalities with a powerful media presence on the one hand, against an uncertain and maybe even uninformed government on the other.

Whether the truth lies squarely between the two positions or is genuinely and more admirably represented by one view remains to be seen; indeed this is what the court is reasonably expected to determine.

Unfortunately, appearances all along have been far removed from reality. The governments of the various concerned states -- Gujarat, MP and Maharashtra -- have shown considerable disregard for the promises they made in political and legal terms; reparations for the displaced folks have been nowhere near as complete as promised nor, more appallingly, as asserted to the courts.

Equally to blame are the largely disenfranchised people who live in the villages submerged by the dam and who have done their futures little good by their appearance of intractable opposition to the construction of the dam.The induction of Arundhati Roy, clad in the armor of liberal concern for the poor hasn't helped, partly because it is easily dismissed as being self-serving to her own purposes.

The courts themselves haven't been above this fiasco. They have been disappointing at best and uninterested at worst. Even when there was substantial evidence that the assurances given by the governments of the three western states were little more than lies, the courts chose not to challenge their assertions. If those who are entrusted with the responsibility of upholding the law are able to get away with a mere pretence at it and the courts do not take that to be a serious breach of their authority, citizens will quickly lose faith in the judiciary.

Those who backed the project financially, the World Bank initially and then governments in India, have been unmitigated disasters. Not very many years ago, the World Bank came to the conclusion that its armchair notions of economic growth had little parallel in the real world and resolved to move funding away from mega projects that achieve very little, to focused and precisely targeted ones -- the much smaller projects.

The incongruity between this stated position and the bank's actual mismanagement is currently culminating in a Chinese-backed plan to move 60,000 Han Chinese into Tibet in the name of resettlement and poverty alleviation, roundly criticised as ethnic cleansing with development money. So much for their economics and even less for their sincerity. The World Bank is, and always has been, captive to the interests of funders and politics. Understandable perhaps, but if so then it is time to shed the affectations of grandiose goals.

That leaves one last group, the gallant. This collection, embodied best by Medha Patkar, is currently fending off the charge of obscurantism and at the same time is fighting a losing battle to attain better rewards for the displaced. However well intentioned, the confrontationist ethic behind the actions of this group has turned a lot of people away from their cause. The unfortunate truth is that the many who revere her leadership are not so much in awe of what she has accomplished by her actions as wedded to the continued hope of what she might go on preventing, often at the threat of suicide!

Perhaps this might seem as being uniformly critical without assigning any credit, even where it is due. To counter this charge, it is evident that whichever interest group one favours -- either those who see damning the Narmada and other rivers as critical to growth, or those who see in it the demolition of a romantically rural way of life -- neither has accomplished anything close to its stated goal. Judging by that yardstick, criticism isn't merely appropriate all around, it is warranted, even at this stage.

If the tide in the affairs of this river should ever turn, it will be from a willingness on all sides to recognise that a rational and reasonable view at the bargaining table is a pre-condition to resolution. Extremism of opinion is its own enemy and will merely leave everyone languishing in the sort of limbo that serves neither the local interests nor that of communities quite removed from the river but which nevertheless hope to benefit from it. Specifically then, we must hope that the current round in the Supreme Court will produce the following results.

i. The courts must give a better account of themselves, lest confidence in the judiciary erodes further.

ii No government should be able to say that it has fulfilled previous promises without some confirmation of the same by the petitioners.

iii The precise number and quality of life issues that determine whether those who have already been displaced are adequately compensated must be made public and, more importantly, must be verified by the courts prior to the judgment.

To take one party's view at face value may be inherent to the judicial process and credibility may even be what the judges sit in judgement of, but to the extent that the public interest is what is sought, the satisfaction of the affected parties must be determined. As it stands, those people are crying foul and worse.

Those living in the affected areas as well as those who speak on their behalf must reconcile themselves to a simple fact -- there is no constitutional right to a particular way of life, whether it is farming or banking or anything else. If one goes purely by sentiment, the rustic simplicity of the now-drowning villages is of no more value than the monumental machinery that will replace it. Instead, reasonable economic considerations must be permitted.

The Luddite nature of obstructionists is nothing more than condescension in the guise of concern. A half-constructed dam from which nothing is gained will leave the displaced in misery without even the possibility of benefit. If village life were really all it is made out to be, we wouldn't see our cities straining under the weight of continuing immigration from the countryside. To romanticise this is irrational bunk.

Rational opinion and sound policy must replace irrelevant posturing. The likes of Arundhati Roy should withdraw from the picture; truly interested persons can then promote the works of those who have studied the problem and have rational alternative solutions. In particular, Suhas Paranjape and K J Joy proposed an alternative which would reduce submergence by two-thirds, keep the dam height to within 110 metres, rehabilitate displaced persons within the Narmada valley itself instead of into some godforsaken semi-arid wilderness in Gujarat and actually get the water to Saurashtra and Kutch, a possibility which has rapidly receded now.

Tear-jerker dramatism in publications tailored to middle-class liberalism isn't going to feed anyone in the valley. Those very same readers in Ahmedabad and elsewhere also want to flick a switch and have their air-conditioners come on, or open their taps to potable running water; their sympathies are easily altered in the summer heat.

The governments of our western states and their financial backers need to rapidly acquaint themselves with the purpose of their participation in this project. Their primary goal must be to serve the interests of the communities they represent in various legislative offices and dens of power. Arresting a dripping-wet Medha Padkar and carting her off to detention every once in a while is preposterous; they would do far better to insist on having the protesters join them at a bargaining table and seek a fair measure of justice all around.

The endless rounds of scheming and unplanned decision-making has left far too many of us willing to believe that the government is ultimately too crooked to deal with this fairly. Leaders in Gujarat, MP and other states might take a cue from elsewhere, voters increasingly reward results and punish status quo politicians.

We are at the water's edge again. The sink-or-swim combative positions of the past have led to nowhere and the inexplicable blindness of the courts have been discouraging. We can do without another round of the same.

Ashwin Mahesh

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