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Mockery of Modern India

The Supreme Court judgement in the Narmada case has overturned all of India's claims to democracy on its head, says
L.S. Aravinda

Reviving outdated superstitions and creating new claims for the supernatural powers of dams, the Supreme Court majority judgment in the Narmada case has taken India back to an era of divine rule by kings. Directing the people, the planners, the engineers, and the civil servants to abide by plans drawn up 3-4 decades ago, it has rejected all the progress made since then. Along with facts, the Court has rejected the aspirations of the people for true development through the modern processes of decision-making being pioneered through democratic decentralisation and tribal self-rule.

In haughty ignorance of plain truths experienced by millions and documented by decades of research, the Majority Judgment of Justice B.N. Kirpal, co-signed by Justice Anand, states that large dams upgrade the environment, that displacement improves people's lives, that tribal villagers do not live in communities, and that government offices function efficiently and responsibly.

Surely the Supreme Court in the World's Largest Democracy could hardly have meant that money rules, and people had better put up
or shut up

Absolute faith in state power goes so far as to raise the spectre of long-rejected concepts as divine right of kings as an acceptable substitute for constitutional democratic processes. The evidence offered to support these claims would make anyone laugh, were it not the Order of the Supreme Court.

Comparison of the Majority Judgment with the Minority Judgment highlights the ignorance at every level from grammar, to life on earth. Split decisions may be common but the two decisions read differently. While the majority calls for immediate construction, the minority calls for an immediate halt. Were the two Brothers in the same Courtroom, one wonders? As a matter of fact Justice Bharucha who wrote the Minority Judgment was the only one of the three Justices to hear the Narmada case from day one.Still the Majority Judgment, albeit by a Majority of One, is the Order of the Supreme Court.

Two of the main points of disagreement concern the Environmental Clearance and the "latches" or time limit for filing a case. The crux of Bharucha's order to halt the construction immediately is the simple fact that the Planning Commission has not yet cleared the Sardar Sarovar Project, because the Environmental Clearance requirements have not yet been completed.

While explaining why he says that there was "next to no data" collected on which to base the studies required for this clearance. In contrast, Kirpal writes that "The Project was essentially cleared when late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone in 1961." If India is a constitutional democracy and not a monarchy or theocracy, if the dam was indeed a "development project" and not merely a "temple" then one must ask why Nehru laid the stone before the Planning Commission cleared the project?

The only alternative to the divine right of kings left to us by Kirpal is the unchecked power of capital. Faulting the NBA for "latches" or as he puts it, for filing a case in 1994 though the organisation was formed in 1987." From this he goes on to generalise that no one may challenge a project after money has been spent.

Actually what he says is that any project, if challenged, must be thrown out:

"Any delay in the execution of a project means over run in costs, and the decision to undertake a project, if challenged after its execution has commenced, should be thrown out at the very threshold on the ground of latches ... "

While some have suggested that what Kirpal meant was not that it was not the decision, but the challenge to the project that should be thrown out. However, that would mean that whoever has money to begin a project might simply begin; and thus prevent the possibility of any challenge by the people on the grounds that money had already been spent. Surely the Supreme Court in the World's Largest Democracy could hardly have meant that money rules, and people had better put up or shut up!

Sadly, we must excuse incompetent English and conclude that this is indeed what the Learned Brother meant.

What about studying impacts, planning for compensation? Kirpal answers: delay. Not only will delay in these tasks not affect implementation of the project and associated loans and contracts, but it will also earn you points for having given the matter due deliberation. In short, whoever has power to spend public money had better do it as fast as possible, and deal with consequences as late as possible.

Bharucha on the other hand sees no merit in faulting the petitioner for the timing of filing the suit. Bharucha's is not a pro-people verdict, in that it dismissed the Narmada Bachao Andolans' demand for a review of the project, as well as for recognition of various categories of oustees as Project Affected People entitled to land for compensation.

It is a pro-government judgment, not in the narrow sense of the "respondents" in the case NBA vs Govt, but in the sense of the system at large. Bharucha too believes it can work, though he knows it hasn't so far; and allows for the possibility that it might not work. He calls upon the government departments to complete the studies of environmental impacts and implement plans for mitigating them, and to prepare land for rehabilitation according to the provisions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award; the same, unrevised 1979 award, which has been violated by every inch added to the dam since the first village Mokhdi was submerged without rehabilitation. Bharucha believes all these problems can and must be solved, and orders a halt till both environmental and rehabilitation conditions are met.

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