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Beyond pre-emptive obituaries:
Revitalising the Narmada movement

Illustration by Hidish

The Narmada flows in all of us. So it's time we stopped dissociating ourselves from the event and treating it like a piece of mildly interesting gossip, says Shiv Visvanathan

The Supreme Court decision on the height of the dam appears like a death sentence to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). It is a body blow and the rhetoric of
reactions adds to the confusion. Lal Krishna Advani intensifies the aftertaste when he claims that the Pokhran blast and the Narmada dam constitute the virtual vindications of his regime. It is an illiteracy that even George Bush would envy. But beyond the gossip, media indifference, and desperation of tribals about to be erased from history is a deeper set of questions.

Narmada is a part of all of us. It is not a political movement
in a remote land, a little drama enacted by a hyperactive student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
It is a site and metaphor that every Indian must face as he confronts the Babri Masjid, the Emergency or the Bhopal Gas Disaster. He cannot hide behind technical questions. Every foot of the dam is a lifeline to a few thousand people.
A few decades ago, Indian citizens proudly shouted "
Amar Nam, Tomar Nam Vietnam" (My name and yours, is Vietnam). Today we have to say with an equal poetics and equal politics "My name and your name is Narmada".

All too often we dissociate ourselves from the movement.
Our politics is delegated. Thus charity belongs to Mother Teresa, protest to Medha Patkar, transparency to Aruna
Roy and the MKSS. We are ordinary helpless citizens consuming our cokes and our
bhel puris. There is something almost salacious in our interest in Arundhati Roy; and reports on the Narmada appear like handouts from Stardust. And this is the danger.

What if Defence Colony in Delhi
or Adyar in
Chennai were to
be displaced tomorrow? Would the inhabitants move silently or agree to transfer to some god-forsaken spot without schools, hospitals
or shops on the mere promise of some bureaucrat?

We consume movements
the way we consume political gossip. As a result we consider ourselves outside these events. We cluck sadly and say 'I told you so'. We add that Narmada Bachao was defeated because of Medha's personality or Arundhati's Bisleri bottles.
We are inordinately angry
when tribals protesting at Rajghat appear to be a bit
richer than they should be.
Our old adolescent radicalism comes in handy and NBA smells of petty bourgeois crimes. And clucking, we move on to nibble at the next event.

We have to realise that there are two movements being discussed here. There is a wider movement against development and reappraisal of what citizenship means. Secondly, every person as a citizen is a bundle of political movements. Consumption and voting cannot exhaust his/her political preferences.

Let us be candid. The NBA made mistakes. It was intolerant of differences. Its "no dam" position alienated many who wished to work on rehabilitation. It was Stalinist in its rewriting of histories. Many who worked with it at the start were rudely brushed aside. Also, its reactions to technical questions may not have been technical enough.

For instance, when the former director of IIT Madras, P.V. Indiresan accused Medha for being responsible for the Gujarat drought, he was being unnecessarily provocative. And yet the NBA did need a solution to the drought in Saurashtra. Merely beating the bandwagon of traditional technology, of dreams of water harvesting from traditional technology won't do.

Yet Indiresan's own political profile needs a second look.
His hostility to Dalits entering the IIT is well known. His idea of socio-technical solutions fails as democratic imagination, even as Medha's idea of engineering is not quite IIT material. But Professor Indiresan should try scientists like A.K.N. Reddy or Sripad Dharmadikary for size. The battle would be fairly even.

What we need desperately are three kinds of middlemen-scientific, political and ethical. The democratic imagination becomes a symphony when we combine all three.

Narmada is a failure of the scientific imagination. Science laboratories and large dams don't create the scientific temper that Nehru dreamed about. It comes when scientific facts are debated openly in public, and scientific facts are tied to societal facts. Here journals like
Current Science and academies like The Indian National Science Academy have failed miserably. They have few debates to report.

Whether it is nuclear energy or Narmada, our scientists practice a
maunvrat that would embarrass a Jain muni.
We need to devise methods for discussing controversy
and evaluating it. We need something equivalent to the
long and persistent debates on cigarette smoking or the nuclear bomb. Our scientists at home are scared silly and the diaspora abroad is too technocratically fundamentalist
to worry about such issues.

It is true the NBA was not political enough. It lacked a shrewd Gandhianness that allowed it to talk to its opponents without alienating them. It could not converse with political parties, trade unions or Dalit groups, all of whom watched
it from an ocular distance. As a wag once said, there is a better sense of politics in our sports pages than in the
NBA documents.

Thirdly, there is a failure of economic categories. The economic paradigm in India needs what Linus Pauling
once dubbed, an axiomatic of suffering. What internal controls do finance capital, World Bank, cost benefit analysis or risk theory have to prevent it from being
ecocidal or
cognitively indifferent to genocide? Or do
we conclude that a million refugees is an externality
for resource economics? Our economics as a discipline needs more creative links between life, livelihood, lifestyle and life chances.

But the biggest failure is one of citizenship, something we all claim to share. We don't see marginals as citizens. Whether it is tribals, slums, shifting cultivators or dying crafts, we see them as outside the pale of citizenship. We don't see the link between our consumption, our idea of GNP as electricity and the disappearance of these groups. We blame them for being "underdeveloped". The irony does not strike us. As the philosopher Ivan Illich once said, it took thousands of years for a people to be persuaded that they were underdeveloped.

We talk of diversity but don't understand it as a lived world. Our varieties of culture, our 40,000 varieties of rice do not exist in museums; they are lived worlds. The West museumised its culture, though of late it has begun reinventing its museums. We possess a cultural diversity
of crafts, languages, trees, birds, beliefs, which dams destroy. A census of the dying does not justify murder. We have to see the link between the electric switches we put on, the fan or the cooler, the electricity that comes in, the dams we build, and the tribals we displace.

What if Defence Colony in Delhi or Adyar in Chennai were
to be displaced tomorrow? Imagine the confusion and conversation at the India International Centre or Madras Cricket Club. Would the inhabitants move silently or agree
to transfer to some god-forsaken spot without schools, hospitals or shops on the mere promise of some bureaucrat?

Our middle class feels that it is beyond the pale of relief
and rehabilitation. But think of it: will the middle class or upper middle class move quietly because national security
or sustainable development required it? Would they be content with a few letters in The Hindu or a signed statement in the
IIC Quarterly?

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