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Unblocking the Narmada

People First, Tribunals Later


ONE does not have to be an uncritical admirer of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to recognise the powerful popular sentiment behind the struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) or acknowledge the need for a thorough review of the whole scheme. The sheer scale and tenacity of the struggle, highlighted by the recent impressive mass mobilisation in the valley, bear testimony to the first proposition. The second is borne out by numerous alternatives proposed to the SSP, besides changes in the basic parameters in its original design. The approaching Supreme Court hearing of the NBA petition for the ``final disposal'' is an appropriate occasion to scrutinise the SSP. The litigation has become a litmus test not only for environmental protection, but equally for issues of displacement and development; balancing the larger public interest against sectional gains from irrigation projects, and relevance of the law to people's vital concerns, indeed to the fundamental right to life with dignity and justice.

Utilitarian Calculus

The SSP raises many questions: Should a project based on 40 or 50 year-old assumptions about water flows and environmental impacts be considered totally unalterable even when those assumptions are demonstrably false? Should the displacement of two lakh people, many of them underprivileged and vulnerable -- and half of them Adivasis -- be considered a fair price to pay for irrigating land that can get the same quantity of water in other, less destructive, ways? Must the 21-year-old award of a river water tribunal be treated as sacrosanct when the project's cost-benefit ratios have radically changed? What justifies the project authorities' insistence on adding an extra 19 feet to the dam height only for power generation when that spells the submergence of 26,000 hectares (half of it prime-quality forests), and when another riparian state offers an alternative power source?

Besides these practical questions, there are larger issues of ethics and jurisprudence too. How long are we going to follow a crude 19th century utilitarian calculus which justifies sacrificing the vital interests of the underprivileged for the greatest good of the greatest number, and which violates the requirement of modern ethical theory that we must first protect those very interests? How do we take social and legal cognisance of the truth that some 30 million Indians have been uprooted and brutalised since Independence in the name of `development'? How do we remedy this? Should immutable legal verdicts be reached in this era of democracy without consultation with those liable to be affected by them on a mass scale? What can be done to defend the human rights of project-affected people in independently monitored, verifiable, ways? If the courts prescribe urban vehicular pollution standards to governments in minute detail, where should they stop with rural projects?

Predatory Bureaucrats

The Narmada litigation began with a broad agenda, but has increasingly got narrowed in scope to the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation alone. It is imperative to broaden its scope to reflect the true range of issues at stake. Even on resettlement, the project authorities have a thoroughly unsatisfactory record, marked by repeated non-compliance with stipulated norms at this early stage of displacement. (Some 31,000 of the total of 41,000 families whose lands will be submerged are on the displacement roster). And it is already apparent that there isn't enough land in contiguous areas to resettle those ousted. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (where the maximum displacement will occur) have said as much in official documents. This is confirmed by numerous non-official surveys. These numbers exclude people displaced by canals, drainage creation, colony construction, sanctuaries, etc. Nineteen years after construction began, there is no master plan for rehabilitation.

To complicate matters, a good chunk of the available land is uncultivable or already encroached upon. So unsurprisingly, over 300 families, which had left their homes for rehabilitation sites, have returned, e.g. in Mokhadi, the first SSP-affected village. Thousands have firmly refused to move out altogether. Hostilities have broken out between Adivasi groups, instigated by predatory bureaucrats and driven by competition for scarce resources. This makes nonsense of any authentic notion of rehabilitation, which must be consensual, not confrontationist, and minimally involve full economic reparation and community rehabilitation, with a degree of cultural and social cohesion, especially for Adivasis. It violates the basic principle that no displaced person should be worse off than before his/her `rehabilitation'.

It will not do selectively to cite the scrappy reports of the PD Desai committee to counter this reality. Gujarat which appointed the committee is not a neutral actor, but a partisan government which has taken a confrontationist stand on the SSP, refused cooperation with the Centre and co-riparian states and even threatened the tripartite World Commission on Dams, which includes irrigation and construction-industry interests.

Real Issue

If the rehabilitation side of the SSP balance-sheet is embarrassing, the economic side is no better. The irrigation potential capital cost works out at over Rs 2 lakh per hectare, even assuming a high irrigation efficacy (60 per cent instead of the normal 40). Depreciation and interest on this alone would render downstream agriculture utterly unviable, given that our annual irrigated-land farm output is of the order Rs 20,000/hectare. Besides, the SSP authorities exaggerate the power and drinking water benefits. There are cheaper, environmental-and people-friendly alternatives to the second. SSP water won't reach parched Kutch (for which only two per cent is earmarked) till 2020 or 2025. No financial allocation has been made for this. Kutch and Saurashtra farmers feel cheated and are already agitating over this, and have started cooperative water users' groups to recharge aquifers -- an excellent, sustainable, method.

There are numerous alternatives to the SSP as currently designed, including a reduction in dam height. These were adumbrated in two reports of the five-member expert group appointed (1993) by the Centre, and the Morse Review appointed by the World Bank. Engineers and social scientists (Paranjpe and Joy) have drawn up conjunctive groundwater-use schemes to supplement a reduced-height dam which would decrease displacement and submergence by nine-tenths or more. It would be foolhardy to ignore these and push ahead with the SSP. At the end of the day, the real question is not one of technology or law, but of people, rationality and democracy. If rationality and democracy are to have any meaning, and if public interest litigation is to survive -- it is already in decline -- the SSP must be fully opened up for review and radical revision.

The Economic Times


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