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Dissent over the dam


Illustration by Hidesh

The Supreme Court's verdict on the Narmada dam is based on the limited evidence presented to the court by the opponents and defenders of the project

The controversy-ridden Sardar Sarovar Project had only become acute because of the Supreme Court judgement on Wednesday, allowing the work to be resumed. It was stopped after the Narmada Bachao Andolan had managed to obtain an injunction from the court.

The three-judge bench delivered a majority judgement of 2-1. The majority judgement delivered by Justice BN Kirpal expressed satisfaction with the rehabiltation work undertaken by three states - Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra - but said that it would require clearance from the impact group of the environ ministry. Even the dissenting verdict of Justice SP Bharoocha says that the work should be stopped until the project is cleared by the environmental ministry.

Those who oppose the dam are naturally unhappy, while the Gujarat government and other politicians are jubilant. It is more a case of entrenched rivals, who are fighting a battle of wits and nerves. In many ways, they are the great obstacles to understanding the issue.


What needs to be done in this instance is to provide proper legal advice and assistance to
ensure that the governments do
not shortchange
the people

 
There is a need to look at the objections of the opponents of the dam project. The main issue they have raised concerns the rehabilitation of the people who have been replaced. There are indeed complications on this score. The state governments could not have done a perfect job. Secondly, many of the people, who are mostly poor and uneducated, could have
unknowingly taken the compensation without realising the implications.

What needs to be done in this instance is to provide proper legal advice and assiatance to ensure that the governments do not shortchange the people. It would have been better if the NBA activists and others paid greater attention on this score. The Supreme Court had no other option but to base its opinion on evidence that has come up before it. The court's verdict is not infallible and inalterable. There is need for greater documentation of the rehabilitation process. The official account cannot be fully trusted. The court should scrutinize closely the three state governments' claims

The second objection against the dam is more an ideological one. Some of the key activists like Medha Patkar and author Arundhati Roy are opposed to the very idea of big dams. While Patkar is agitated over the destruction of the way of living and culture of the tribals as a result of the building of the dam. Roy has tried to prove in a rather meticulous fashion that the dams do not really benefit people, and that the claims made about increasing irrigation facilities and generation of electricity are not exactly true. Now that is a big question which leads to a general debate about the developmental model India has adopted in the last 50 years. It cannot be settled in a court of law.

What is of greater concern is whether the project is being implemented properly. The experience with other big dam projects has shown that officials and experts are too blinkered to anticipate problems that could crop up. Secondly, it is very important to closely monitor the stages of the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and other dams on the Narmada.

Unfortunately experts in Indiia have become highly unreliable. They seem to marshal arguments for whichever side they are on. There are experts on the side of the government, and there are experts on the side of the protesters. Though it makes for a lively debate to listen to them all, the real issues are never addressed.

It would be na´ve to pretend that we can live in a non-technological arcadia. Though the alternative society romantics should have the freedom to pursue their dreams, they should not try to enforce their views on the majority of the people through their agitprop tactics. The only option they have in a democratic society is for them to fight the elections on the issues they believe in. If they fail to win the elections and the mandate of the people, then they should have the grace to step aside.

This does not mean those who are opposing the dams and the dominant paradigm of development are enemies of the state. As a matter of fact, we need those dissenting voices constantly, and that is what a democracy is all about.

And those in power should have the humility to listen to the dissidents, even when they do not agree. And the critics of dams and development in general should give up their agitational tactics, and spend their energy to spread their ideas among the people. It is a fact that it is thanks to the mavericks of the 1960s and 1970s that ecology has moved into mainstream politics today.




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