The Sardar Sarovar case : a universal concern

Jai Sen

The Supreme Court's final set of Hearings on the Sardar Sarovar case starting on February 29 constitutes a historic moment. The case has a long civil and political history behind it, the issue is internationally known, and the issues the contestation has raised are fundamental in nature. Because of this almost universal relevance, the case merits a wider perspective than it has been given so far.

The case in question was filed in 1994 and is part of the struggle led by the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan or Save the Narmada movement). Since 1985, the movement is one of the largest and most extensive of popular movements in India for many decades. It has received widespread support within the Narmada valley from those most affected by the project -- the Adivasis or tribals, who live primarily in the hills bounding the river immediately behind the dam, and the prosperous Patidar farmers and traders who are the majority of the population in the Nimar valley further upstream.

The movement has also received fairly extensive support from other Indian movements and from the intelligentsia in metropolitan areas. Outside India, it has been supported by prominent environmental, human rights, and other civil organisations, especially in North America, Europe, and Japan, as well as by members of Parliaments in several countries. The NBA consciously built links in these countries, as they are the major shareholders in the World Bank. Through this, the movement's supporters put sustained pressure, especially of public opinion, to bear on their governments to pressurise the Bank, to in turn put pressure on the central and state governments in India to meet agreed social and environmental standards. And later, to get the Bank to withdraw from the project.

The NBA has been at the crest of a wave of independent civil movements around environmental, developmental, social, and human rights issues that has risen in India and across the world. And precisely because of its success in mobilising this kind of support, the NBA and the issues raised have become symbolic of a much wider universe of concerns raised, in India and internationally.

They have played a key role in precipitating policy reforms in institutions such as the World Bank -- public access to information on Bank-related matters; the rights of project-affected peoples to appeal to a semi-independent'Inspections Panel', in cases where the Bank was at fault; and with regard to resettlement & rehabilitation. The campaign also played a central role in triggering the formation in 1998 of the WCOLD (World Commission on Large Dams), a collaboration of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), an international civil body based in Geneva, and the World Bank, to look at the very future of large dams.

Large dams such as the SSP affect the lives of tens of millions of people across the world. They are also however major investments, and large money-spinners. The stakes involved in the present hearings are therefore extremely high, both financially and in terms of the aspirations and lives of ordinary peoples.

The project was first proposed in 1960-61 by the state of Gujarat, after it was formed in May 1960, when the earlier Bombay state was partitioned after a fractious struggle. It was seen by the new state as a foundation for development in agriculture and industry, and an assertion of Gujrati identity in the region. There was a short-lived but important movement among the farmers of south Gujarat in the late 60s, to pressure the state government to implement the project and to not weaken in its resolve.

The project was strongly opposed by the government of Madhya Pradesh in the 60s, demanding a lower dam in Gujarat, but a higher dam within its own boundaries. This went on for nearly a decade, and referred to an interstates disputes tribunal in 1969 (the Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal) which itself took a debate to arrive at its award, in 1979. From the early-mid 90s, the state government has moved to opposing the high dam, now proposing a lower dam to reduce the dam's impact in the state (in exchange for forgoing its gains from the project).

It is commonly thought that popular agitation around the project started with the formation of the NBA, in 1985. But the history of struggle in fact began as far back as in 1961, when the Adivasi farmers of villages that were forcibly demolished and removed for the dam and for Kevadia, the township built for the project, agitated for more just compensation than they received.

Large farmers and other landowners in the Nimar valley, within Madhya Pradesh and on the wrong side of the dam, then started protesting their possible displacement from as early as in the late 60s, forming themselves into a Narmada Bachao, Nimar Bachao Samiti and taking their campaign up to the level of the Prime Minister. They were mobilised by Rameshwar Patidar, till recently a BJP Member of Parliament. And then another round of loud protest at the height of the dam in Madhya Pradesh took place in the late 70s, by the same section of Patidar farmers and traders but this time under the banner of a Nimar Bachao Andolan, led by the Congress-I.

The issues that we now associate with the Narmada were first articulated by a civil organisation in Gujarat, ARCH Vahini, which began working in 1980 in the nineteen Adivasi villages in Gujarat affected by the dam. Some years later, activists also from Gujarat - from SETU, a civil organisation based in Ahmedabad, including Medha Patkar - started organising work in affected villages in Maharashtra. This later became the Narmada Bachao Andolan, with a mass base in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat.

Both ARCH Vahini and the NBA and its supporters at first wanted just rehabilitation for all; the NBA in addition demanded the right of people affected by the project to have information on the project that was going to change their lives forever.

But in the course of their sustained campaign, the NBA also exposed environmental devastation, displacement, and the extensive violation of human rights in the implementation of the project. They argued that full and adequate resettlement of those displaced was not feasible and nor was the project economically viable. And they charged mismanagement and deception of the public, by project authorities and the World Bank. In 1992, the Independent Review (or Morse Commission) which had been commissioned by the World Bank vindicated most of their apprehensions and charges. The Commission said that the project could only be completed'by unacceptable means', and recommended that the Bank'step back'.

The NBA has conducted campaigns that have been far more ambitious, intense, and sustained than the earlier civil initiatives. As a consequence they have faced far more intense opposition from the proponents of the project, vilification and also severe repression from time to time. But this has also been widely noticed, and protested, in India and abroad.

All this has contributed to the democratisation of project planning and implementation, at local, national, and international levels. This can be considered to be one of the NBA's most important contributions. They achieved this by forcing the creation of new political space at all these levels for the Adivasis and Patidars and for civil movement and the recognition of the notion that society and civil actors have a crucial role to play in planning and governance in general.

It is because the Sardar Sarovar case is imbued with this long history and with the hopes of its various actors that one hopes that all this will impinge on the consciousness and thinking of the judges. Their judgement could be an important contribution to the ongoing global dialogue on'Development, yes, but what kind of development ? And who decides ?'.

The main actors in this case are the marginalised Adivasi communities and the middle and large farmers and traders (Patidars in Madhya Pradesh, Patels in Gujarat); and behind the project, contractors, politicians, and also industrialists. It is precisely these same sections who are affected by similar projects, and who stand to gain from such projects, all over the world. The outcome of this case could thus have implications for similar situations across the world, especially in the South.

Though jurisprudence in India has no legal standing in other countries, development issues and concerns around the Narmada project since the 1980s are widely known around the world. The evolution of development in India has also been of long-standing interest to people and governments outside the country. Since the 1950s, in the context of decolonisation in many parts of the world, and then of the Non-Aligned Movement, India has played a leading role. This is because, for all our other weaknesses, India remains as Professor Ignacy Sachs says, one of the'whales' in the developing world.

This is now also true of the civil world. 'Narmada' has now become a world symbol of the wider struggle for sustainable development. My own research into the history of the Narmada campaigns in other countries has shown that it is widely known and respected by people in many walks of life, from activists to members of Parliament.

The outcome of the Narmada case is therefore of very wide interest, and could assume a wider historical responsibility than the next case. Just as the courts in India periodically cite cases from the House of Lords in Britain, or from the US Supreme Court (or from the courts in Australia, Canada, Nigeria, etc), it is quite likely that this particular case will also achieve that status.

But this will only happen if the judgement that is arrived at addresses the more fundamental issues and the universal concerns that have been raised.

This article was published in The Hindustan Times, on March 12 2000.