Dam and Blast
More than merely unfortunate, it would be tragic if the eloquent and well-meant intervention of literary celebrity Arundhati Roy, supported by her many admirers, should blur the real focus of the current six-day protest rally in the Narmada Valley in Madhya Pradesh. The issue today is not pro-dam, or anti-dam. This is rather like being either inflexibly pro-surgery or anti-surgery; an obvious absurdity since it is the circumstances that must determine whether or not surgery is required. In this case, the factors in favour of building the dam -- the very real water needs of the farmers of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -- are largely accepted as outweighing the adverse effects, though technical specifications regarding the height and size of the dam could be reworked to overall advantage. The real issue today is the human one of providing adequate relief and rehabilitation for those who will be displaced. Ms Roy's gesture of donating her Booker Prize money was aimed precisely at speeding this process along. The Narmada project, if completed according to the current specifications, will displace over two lakh people. The government's record in resettling project-affected persons has been less than satisfactory. While it is nobody's contention that development be held hostage by green groups, facts in the Narmada case suggest that the states which will benefit from the dam have been tardy in implementing adequate measures to minimise the aggravation to those who will be affected.
In Gujarat, 140 families who shifted over 12 years ago have returned to their original villages in the submergence zone, exasperated by the appalling conditions of resettlement. The Madhya Pradesh government is on record saying it does not have enough land to settle those displaced by the dam. It must also be kept in mind that rehabilitation is not just a matter of land and money -- the people whose homes will be submerged have very strong emotional bonds to the land of their birth and their places of worship. If the government cannot guarantee the relocation of villages as units or even keeping families together, those displaced cannot be blamed for harbouring serious reservations. Given its past record, the government's plea that it ought to be trusted on the relief and rehabilitation issue this time around does not inspire much confidence. In fact, many displaced during dam construction in the 'fifties and 'sixties are yet to find a permanent home. If, even at this late stage, the government were to begin implementing comprehensive relief measures, a great deal of confidence would be restored both among the activists and the affected. The Narmada dam controversy highlights the plight of those displaced by all forms of development. A viable mechanism has to be worked out to ensure that they are given a fair deal. A panel could be set up consisting of independent experts and government officials which could discuss ways and means of both raising funds and ensuring that development projects proceed in tandem with relief and rehabilitation efforts. Ms Arundhati Roy's well-publicised `rally for the valley' is certain to ensure that some remedial measures are undertaken now. The real danger is that some months down the line, the plight of the displaced will be forgotten once again.