Valley for the Rally
The Terms of Displacement
By LALITA PANICKER
EVER since star author Arundhati Roy's declared her decision to take up the issue of the Narmada dam, the politically correct and incorrect have been at each others' throats. The incorrect maintain that Ms Roy, unable to recreate The God of Small Things magic, is floundering around for a fashionable cause to keep herself in the limelight. Hence the bomb, the valley and maybe later, Kargil. Why should she not take up whatever issue she wants to as long as it gives voice to the voiceless, counter the correct. Perhaps, they add, people are threatened by the fact that the author is young, a woman, attractive and successful -- a lethally provocative combination apparently.
The much-publicised `rally for the valley' has ended. The believers and non-believers have trudged back, all of them dazzled by the untamed beauty of the river which will eventually be forced to flow along man-made contours. For the city-slickers, the very fact that they bestirred themselves out of their homes to commune with nature and learn about the Narmada on the ground has liberated them from the guilt of apathy. To Ms Roy's credit, she has put the tired old issue back onto the front pages of the media.
So far so good. But, atmospherics apart, what has actually been achieved in concrete terms for the project-affected? So far, nothing. Madhya Pradesh's media savvy chief minister, Mr Digvijay Singh, saw in Ms Roy's rally an opportunity to score a point over the Gujarat government with whom he has been having a running battle over the height of the dam and blunt any criticism of his own record in the matter. He pulled out all the stops for Ms Roy's roadshow, making available state guest houses, transport and security personnel to ensure safe passage for the rallyists.
In return, he got a pat on the back from Ms Roy, very useful in these election times judging by the show of support for her en route the dam site. But he gave away nothing -- no commitment on rehabilitation, no promises on compensation, no assurances of opposing mega development projects in future. By accepting his hospitality, the rallyists have undermined the cause of those in the area since this will be utilised by big dam proponents to question their integrity. In all the mudslinging that will take place, once again the dispossessed will be forgotten.
Post-rally, the public at large is even more confused about the real issues at stake. They cannot be blamed for this, given the numerous confusing statements made both by the activists and the state governments concerned. Most rallyists have denounced the dam, saying it must not be built at all. This is, of course, not a very practical position to adopt. Crores of rupees of taxpayers' money has gone down the Narmada and to expect any government to call the whole thing off now is unrealistic. In fact, the Central government has been positively unbending on the issue with the irrepressible power minister on record saying he would follow Ms Medha Patkar to a watery grave in the swirling waters of the Narmada if she carried out her threat of committing jalsamparan.
Having started construction on the dam without a proper environmental assessment or impact survey, the government must take the lion's share of the blame for the inordinate delays in it going onstream. Surely, it cannot be the government's contention that it was not aware of the many drawbacks of big dams when it approved the Narmada project. The experience of the Aswan dam should have been enough. The Nile river carried 124 million tonnes of sediment to the sea each year, depositing nearly 10 million on the floodplain and delta. Today, 98 per cent of the sediment remains behind in the dam. After the initial prosperity brought about by the dam, today, there has been a drop in soil productivity and other serious imbalances in floodplain agriculture. The storage of water in dams delays and reduces floods in downstream areas. The plants and animals who depend on the river's variations for migration and reproduction among other lifecycle stages are disturbed. This could, in fact, lead to the extinction of many riverine species.
In India, the main point of contention is the question of rehabilitation. The government has left itself wide open to criticism on this issue by its characteristic callousness in dealing with those whose homes have already been submerged and those who face such a prospect. The same politicians who are loathe to relinquish bungalows in posh city locales on the grounds that they cannot find commensurate accommodation elsewhere have airily dismissed the trauma people face when uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to live in what is often unproductive and alien land.
The rally and the sustained protest by the Narmada Bachao Andolan is not likely to stop this particular dam. However, it will force future governments to pause before blindly clearing such projects. Even now, if the concerned state governments were to sit together and arrive at some solution -- perhaps the Jayant Patil committee's recommendations can be a starting point -- the Narmada imbroglio could finally be settled. The MP government's motives in seeking a lowering of the dam's height may be selfish, but this is worthy of consideration if it minimises the number of those displaced by the project.
Years of Obduracy
Needless official imperiousness has been the root cause of the Narmada problem. If the government had sought greater public participation from the inception of the project, the Narmada Bachao Andolan may never have had to be set up. Indeed, on a more acceptable scale with effective mitigation measures, the project could have created employment opportunities.
Renewed public interest in the issue should encourage the government to move ahead and finally settle the issue. Years of obduracy and refusal to compromise have not benefited either the oustees, potential oustees or indeed those in drought-prone areas who will benefit from the dam. The support for Ms Roy's rally should show the government that try as it might, the issue will not die down. Addressing the contentious Narmada issue could be the first step to acknowledging the plight of all those displaced by various types of development and formulating proposals for redress.