Development projects and the Adivasi
What kind of country do we want India to be ?

Jai Sen
published in Mainstream, Aug 19 2000

What is the one, single, biggest, most outstanding issue in the Narmada affair ? In my estimation, it has to do with nothing less than what kind of country we want India to be.

Since July 15, members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan have once again gone into satyagraha on the banks of the river, in defence of their demands for the rights and entitlements of the peoples of the Narmada valley, and in the face of the waters of the river that are once again relentlessly rising with the monsoons that have set in. This is therefore once again a time for reflection on the issues that the movement has raised, and on the issues many of them profound that this and other contestation over this project has helped to articulate.

At this very same time, the Supreme Court is in the final stages of its deliberations on the case that the NBA filed around the project, in 1994. Its final orders are due any time now. I have already argued, in another recent article, that of all the issues that surround the case that the Court is hearing, there are two that seem to me to be by far the most important. These are the struggle real and conceptual - that is involved in such projects and planning between the sovereignty and primacy of corporate, centralised power in a country (in particular, in the form of the state) and the sovereignty and freedoms of that country's peoples; and the question of the legitimacy and authority of the state.

These two issues are not limited to the Narmada situation alone; they burn through the texture of all such situations in the country today, and at the risk of generalising too much possibly also through the texture of all such situations all over the world. They do so because such projects and planning are creatures of a particular model of national 'development' (and within this, of a particular stage of development), and for all the good that they have also brought in, they also represent in such situations grotesque deformity in social relations, where the state (and corporate power in general) has become too large and too powerful.

As a consequence, at one level their flames threaten to burn large holes in the fabric of society itself; but at another, the light that the flames also radiate as in the case of all fires that rage illuminates a whole terrain of issues, and the sheer intensity of the light they shed makes clear (or can, to those who are wanting to see) what is really at stake. The Narmada case, as in all such cases, is not simply about the height of a dam, or the scale of a project, or even the success or otherwise of resettlement, which is what they tend to get reduced to. The fire that is burning is about things that are far more fundamental.

'Narmada' is also symbolic of a much larger whole As I have also argued before, in the article mentioned and also elsewhere, it is my hope that the Court will be able to see its way out of the morass of details and into this larger universe of fundamentals. This is especially important in this particular case because 'Narmada' has become a symbol, an icon, for the larger and world-wide struggle over development and social justice. In a sense, it has become symbolic of the very age that we are living in, and of the stage of development we are going through, here in India and across the world. It is nothing short of essential that we find our way through this, towards more humane, sustainable, and just social relations. The judgement that the Court offers in this case therefore will have far-reaching consequences, not just in concrete terms but also in the minds of peoples across this country and, indeed, across the world, and in relation to the many rivers of social thought and action that flow across this planet.

But there is something else that is burning in the Narmada debate, and in the Narmada valley in these days of rising waters, and in some senses even more deeply, and urgently, than the other two issues. This is the fundamental and cruel injustice that this situation confronts the hill Adivasis of the Narmada valley with at this time, more than anybody else. As this article will show, while other sections of people in the Narmada valley especially the far more prosperous members of mainstream Hindu society may quite possibly gain some relief from a wise decision made by the Courts, the hill Adivasis - people who have been structurally marginalised and discriminated against throughout history - are in a situation where they will lose everything, almost no matter what decision the Court takes.

This situation then is something that even the Supreme Court of the land may not be able to redress, because it is the product of a larger question, of the injustice and prejudice that runs so deep in our society. But one thing is certain : The Court will only be able to address this situation if it is willing to ask and address the question that underlies it, of what kind of society we want to be.

The situation I am speaking of is of course nothing new in history. Those at the 'lower' ends of societies, in India and all over the world, have always been made to bear the price of progress and development of 'society as a whole', and it has always been said that this is the sacrifice they have to make, again for 'the larger good'. But in 'India', when it became independent and its ruling classes drew up its own constitution I use a small 'c' deliberately, because I refer to the health and mentality of the society, and not only to the document, no matter how important it was agreed that the struggle to become a country, a nation, could only be achieved if there was equality in society : Between castes, between classes, between ethnicities and races, even between ages (though not gender, explicitly; such differences were not recognised then). And precisely on account of the profound discrimination and injustice that they had historically suffered, and in order to make this historical project that 'tryst with destiny' - absolutely clear, the Adivasis and the Dalits of the country were given a special place in the constitution and in the dynamic that was expected to unfold.

But in the Narmada case as is so many cases in the country - history and social dynamics have relentlessly forged their own course; and the only way the Adivasi are special here is that they are singled out as victims no matter what. Although this issue has not featured anywhere in recent debate in India around the Narmada project, or in the court case because, all too typically, it has got submerged by a flood of other issues it today, once again, and as the Narmada satyagrahis face history and the forces of nature once again, surfaces. Subliminally, this issue is once again there, confronting the country, and the Supreme Court, with a choice : What kind of country do we want India to be ? Is this kind of structural discrimination and prejudice acceptable ? Is it not time that this general struggle is taken up once again ?

Fifty years and more after independence fifty years after we adopted our constitution do we, 'The People', as citizens of this country, have anything to say about the manner history here, in the form of 'development projects' ? is relentlessly rolling on ? And after all is said and done, this is a question of Justice of historical justice, of social justice, of economic justice : Is this not something that the highest court of the land should be alive to, and saying something about ? And especially when it is staring it in the face ?

'Narmada' is not about the Adivasis alone

Before continuing, let me make a couple of things clear. First, the 'Narmada issue' is often mistakenly assumed to be about Adivasis alone, and the NBA is all too often portrayed as being a 'tribal movement'. Both are incorrect, and very substantially so, and by raising the issue I am in this article and at this point in time - , it is certainly not because I want to reinforce these unfortunate stereotypes. To the opposite, I wish to bring out the situation that they are only one among other communities that are affected by the project, but almost precisely because of this, and because they have historically been the least 'organised' (in terms of conventional politics) and this, in turn, in large part because they have been historically marginalised the project was planned by non-Adivasis as it was. That the dam would be located there; that it would be a high dam; and that they, the Adivasis, could 'make the sacrifice' for the good of the country. (More accurately, that they should be the sacrifice, for the good of the country.) And that because of this history both the general and the more particular - today, when there is a very real choice, as I will show, of very substantially reducing the impact of the project on some of the other sections of society that could also be affected, the Adivasi is going to be sacrificed in any case.

Second, I must emphasise that the discussion in this essay is about the Sardar Sarovar dam alone. Though commonly referred to as 'the Narmada project', the Sardar Sarovar Project is in fact only one part of a much larger project, the Narmada Valley Development Project (which is the real 'Narmada project'). The Sardar Sarovar dam is one of two giant dams in this larger project but these two are among a total of 3,300 dams and weirs that have been planned, one of the largest such projects that have ever been planned in the world. The class and ethnic composition of people affected by the different projects also varies considerably. So even if I too use the term 'Narmada' in this article because it is popularly used it should be clearly understood that I am referring here only to the SSP.

Far from Adivasis being the only people affected by the Sardar Sarovar / Narmada project, it is a fact too little known that a very substantial proportion of those who will be displaced and/or affected by the project if it is implemented as a whole if the height is raised to the 455 ft (139 m) proposed, and the full canal network is built are non-Adivasi : Or in other words, members of mainstream caste Hindu society (and to a limited degree also, Muslims).

At least 40 per cent of the total population of about two lakhs who will be displaced for the Sardar Sarovar 200 km-long project's reservoir alone, are non-Adivasi. This very large chunk of people lives in the Nimar valley in Madhya Pradesh. This valley lies somewhat upstream and east of the Sardar Sarovar dam site at the village of Navagam, which is located near the border of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and is the stretch of the river where the valley between the Vindhya hills to the north of the river and the Satpuras to the south widens to reveal a rich alluvial plain.

Aside from this group - who are actually being displaced for the reservoir - two other large chunks of non-Adivasis who will be badly affected by the project lie on the other side of the dam. One of these chunks lies west and downstream of the dam, towards and past the town of Bharuch. This largely fishing population will not be displaced as such, but it will be badly hit by the drastic reduction in the flow of the river once it is impounded for the project (and the waters diverted along the giant canal system that has been built to take the river into central and western Gujarat). The other chunk are farmers in the command area of the project, in south and central Gujarat, some of whom have been displaced but most of whom have lost land to make way for the canal system ("the world's largest"); and along with them will be affected the largely Dalit agricultural workers who work on their land.

Aside from these however, there are also other groups of Adivasis who have been displaced for the project, such as from the six villages who were summarily evicted from their homes in 1961 to make way for the project construction township (now called Kevadia Colony), and who have still not been resettled, as well as those who have been displaced to make way for the Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary.

The total number displaced and/or affected by the Sardar Sarovar project is about half a million. But it is hopefully clear from this summary that it is by no means the Adivasis alone who are going to be affected by the project. But my purpose in making this clear is that I want to argue that ironically, this is precisely where the rub lies : Where the question of gross and fundamental injustice arises.

The options

To grasp the meaning of this assertion, we have to look briefly at the geography of human settlement in the Narmada valley and also at what the Court might decide with regard to the height of the dam.

In terms of geography, the Sardar Sarovar dam is being built at the point where the Narmada river emerges from a gorge formed by the two ranges of hills that bound it. The hills in this part of the river have traditionally been inhabited only by the Adivasi (barring a few traders, who are generally outsiders). The Nimar valley lies upstream from the gorge. Largely because of its rich alluvial soil as well as the fact the Hindus consider the Narmada the most sacred of all rivers - the valley has always attracted pilgrims as well as settlers from outside. This situation was radically altered by the British raj in the late 19th century, which brought in farmers into this general region from other parts of the country including Gujarat - to open it up to cash cropping. The population density in the Nimar valley is therefore far higher than in the hilly region, and its composition is dominantly non-Adivasi, in particular made up of middle caste Patidars who originate from Gujarat.

These differences have very direct and important implications for the displacement that might be caused. If the Sardar Sarovar dam is built to its full height, the reservoir will stretch some 200 km upstream and it will submerge most of the flatter and more densely settled reaches of the Nimar valley, as well as the gorge. (Too few people talk about the sheer scale of this monster. To get a sense of its enormous size, according to my atlas this length will be greater than the distance from Delhi to Agra; about the same as the distance from Chennai to Bangalore or from Calcutta to Bhubaneshwar; and more than double the distance, as the crow flies, from Ahmedabad to Baroda or from Mumbai to Pune. In other words, if the dam were to be built at Delhi, the reservoir would submerge the Taj and vice versa.)

What this option means that both the hill Adivasis and the Nimar Patidars will be displaced. But if the height is built to a lower height, then it is very likely that that only the hill Adivasi will be affected (depending on the height decided upon), and that most of the dominantly non-Adivasi people of the Nimar Valley will be 'saved'.

With regard to the height of the dam, there would seem to be only three real possibilities that the Court has. The first involves rejecting the NBA's petition and confirming that a dam at the full height approved by the Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal back in 1979 should be built (at 455 ft); and that all those who would be displaced, should be rehabilitated by the state governments concerned. In other words, a more or less 'no change' judgement, though doubtless riddled with instructions to the governments to do their job better.

The second option, which is at least a reasonable possibility, is that the Court will come down in favour of a dam with a reduced height of about 436 ft, which is the figure which the Madhya Pradesh government in particular has been proposing, on the argument that this will very substantially reduce the amount of land submerged and therefore people displaced and that if this is done, it is willing to forego the power that it stood to gain from the project at full height.

A variation on this second possibility is that the Court would come up with yet another intermediate height, which would accordingly affect the amount of land submerged and number of people displaced (a dam higher than 436 ft meaning more land and people, and a lower one meaning less). The possibility of a higher dam but yet less than the full height seems unlikely; but the possibility of a lower dam seems even more unlikely, since the consequent reduced amount of water to Gujarat will raise huge protest from that state, which has invested very substantial financial and political capital in the probability of the waters coming through. Any such decision and lack of sufficient protest to it - could even mean the toppling of the state government in power at that point, given the symbolic importance of the Sardar Sarovar project in the history and politics of the state.

A fourth but extremely distant possibility is that the Court would be so impressed so traumatised - by what it has seen and heard that it proposes a radical revision of the project. This might mean limiting the dam height to more or less what it is today (85 m, or 279 ft), or in its extreme version even demolishing some or all of the dam wall, in an attempt to undo the social and environmental damage that has been done and that will be done by the project. This is not a completely academic possibility, since this has happened in history, such as in the case of a dam across the Danube in Hungary in the 1980s, or more recently, a series of smaller dams in the US. But given the way the case has been conducted in the Court and moreover that no party has ever specifically voiced this demand in the court, and most centrally the symbolic importance of dams in the development theology of modern India, it can safely be assumed that this possibility also is not in the running at all.

In my estimation, the second possibility seems the most likely (though what the odds are on this, I cannot guess). This difference of 19 ft in over 400 - may seem trivial to someone unfamiliar with the details of the project, but the consequences of this small reduction are enormous : For reducing the height by this amount will according to the Madhya Pradesh government almost halve the number of people to be displaced, and also save a large proportion of the forests of the Nimar valley and a good proportion of its fertile agricultural land. For the moment just looking at the overall figures, given the number of people who stand to be affected this does indeed seem to be a huge gain. (The numbers of those affected downstream and west of the dam however, in either of the two other chunks outlined above, will remain the same.) And at the same time, Madhya Pradesh has argued that a dam of this height will ensure that Gujarat will still have the amount of water that was allocated to it by the Tribunal (with the extra 19 ft having been added only to give Madhya Pradesh electricity in return for the huge loss the state more to the point, its people - was going to suffer).

The victimisation of the Adivasi

With this background, let us now look at what the consequences of the different possible heights will be for the various communities in the valley most particularly for the Adivasis and for the non-Adivasi Patidar community that is dominant in the Nimar valley.

As already shown, if the dam is built to its full height both the Adivasi and the non-Adivasi communities will be fully flooded out by the reservoir; an estimated total of about two lakh people in all. Of this total number, less than forty thousand have so far been relocated and 'resettled'. All those displaced and relocated so far have been the hill Adivasi; the reservoir has so far not reached into the Nimar valley. Most of these resettlement sites are in Gujarat, a few in Maharashtra, and so far none in Madhya Pradesh at all, which on the claim that there is no land for resettlement in the state at all - has so far very uncooperative and unimaginative in this regard. It is evident however, that it is hoping that if none of the oustees can manage to settle within the state, then Gujarat will have to provide space for all of these people (since this is the default condition of the Tribunal award). This latter position would seem to be in sharp contrast to its seemingly sensitive position on the height of the dam, but in my view, this is also a part of the larger pattern of politics that adds up to being the victimisation of the Adivasis.

While relocation seems to have been successful for some of the resettlers, a very significant proportion of them have now also returned to live near their original village sites after finding it impossible to live in the resettlement sites. Some found themselves on waterlogged land; some a lack of irrigation facilities; others have faced intense hostility from local communities, for whom these settlers have represented intrusion into their lives, economies, and cultures; and yet others have found it impossible, as Adivasis, to adjust to the social conditions, norms, and requirements of living as a small minority in an area completely dominated by caste Hindu society. This has been perhaps especially true for the women members of the community, whose traditional freedoms under Adivasi culture have been greatly curtailed.

One condition that is common to all of them is their lack of familiarity with the market economy that they have now, necessarily, been forced to enter and become a part of. Another is the fact that what were coherent village communities socially organised however, according to the Adivasi's own distinct social structure, and this in turn reflected in the physical layout of the villages into falias (hamlets) have now been destroyed completely; and with it the sense of security that comes from living within a known and familiar structure. (For instance, the inhabitants from the 19 villages that have been displaced for the reservoir from within Gujarat have been shattered across nothing less than 175 different resettlement sites spread across southern and central Gujarat.) And perhaps most profound of all has been their being uprooted and torn away from their forests and from their river itself, and from the spirits of their ancestors, each of which are key elements of their culture, and then being scattered like this in a virtually treeless and riverless environment, far away from where their spirits dwell. There are some things in life that can never be recovered except by returning, which is what many have now done, to live if necessary higher up on the slopes of their hills the lower reaches of which have now been submerged.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court appointed special Commissions to hold Public Hearings in the concerned states over the subsequent months, to hear grievances about resettlement practice till date and to report back to it. These were due on July 1. These reports should ideally give a much more accurate picture of this situation, but the experience so far would seem to indicate an extremely grim future for the Adivasis who are uprooted; because when and if the dam is built to full height, for most there will be no slopes left to return to. All experience, from around the world, has shown that being uprooted and 'resettled' such a polite word is profoundly traumatic and life-destroying for such peoples; and even if resettlement practices are improved very significantly, in a mass relocation like this will be there is every likelihood that this will remain the case.

Relative to this future, the trauma that the non-Adivasi communities of the Nimar valley who are facing resettlement will suffer is likely to be far less. They are already completely a part of the market economy, their social, economic, and political networks extend across this whole region, and they are a very definite part of the mainstream society (with the Patidars forming an important and in general prosperous middle caste community). Unlike the Adivasi communities, most of whom have so far either chosen or been persuaded to move to Gujarat, most of them will in fact almost certainly just shift across to another part of Madhya Pradesh, outside the submergence zone. And the delicious irony and coincidence of history is that even if they were to choose to go to Gujarat, in a very real sense they would in fact be going 'home' since, as mentioned above, the Patidar community now living in the Nimar valley in fact migrated across from central Gujarat in the late 19th century. Relatively speaking therefore, relocation is likely to be far less traumatic for them, and more akin to being inconvenient; for after all, who likes to leave home ?

In a curious way, the most cruel irony, and tragedy, and therefore injustice, however lies in what would otherwise seems to be the preferred design of a reduced dam height. For in this case, what will happen is that while a very large proportion of the dominantly non-Adivasi population of the Nimar valley will be 'saved', virtually the entire population of the hills all of which is Adivasi - will still be flooded out. They will be exposed to the entire trauma that has been described above, but in this case the trauma will be exclusively reserved for them alone. In other words, those who have been historically marginalised and neglected and exploited, will now be alone on the altar of progress, as the sacrifice to the future. And those who by birth and circumstance and prejudice and power are members of the dominant society will be the gainers. This will not literally be one hundred percent true, insofar as there is also a small proportion of Adivasi farmers and labourers in the Nimar valley and they too will gain from a reduced height, but the overall pattern is clear.

The logic of history and conventional politics

I suggest that this 'pattern' is not accidental at all, but rather is embedded both in the history of the project and of all such projects and more specifically, and importantly, in the politics of areas and countries with such populations.

What I am referring to as the 'preferred design' is not a new proposal at all. In its present incarnation, the proposal for a reduced height has been put forward by the present Digvijay Singh government in Madhya Pradesh since about 1994-95, when it was worked out by the then Chief Engineer of the state, the late Matin Ahmed, that a reduction of this amount would lead to no reduction of water for Gujarat but a major reduction in displacement within the state. But this proposal also has a long history in the state, dating from the late 60s from soon after the proposal for a high dam at this site became serious.

Although not framed in these terms specifically, of no loss for Gujarat there was a mass mobilisation among the Patidar farmers and traders of the Nimar valley in 1968-69 called the Narmada Bachao, Nimar Bachao Samiti ('Save Narmada, Save Nimar Committee'), demanding a reduced height. The objectives of the mobilisation were very simple : They just wished to defend their own interests and to ensure that they were not displaced. This same community was then once again mobilised a decade later, in 1979, though this time for more overtly political ends, by the Congress(I), under the banner of a Nimar Bachao Andolan ('Save the Nimar Movement'), with height reduction once again as their ostensible demand. And the same community was then once again mobilised almost a full further decade later, but this time not for a reduced height but first for more information about the project and then, from 1988 on, to oppose the project outright, and not alone but on a joint platform with the hill Adivasis by what came to become (in 1989) what we now know as the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

That prosperous farmers and traders belonging to the mainstream could be mobilised in defence of their own homes and interests is perhaps not unexceptional; but what is important is that for twenty years, at no time - till the present NBA was formed - did any of those who did the mobilising in Madhya Pradesh think of the lives and interests of the hill Adivasis. Socially and economically marginalised as they were, the Adivasis were also politically marginal in the state; they had no independent voice. So they were dispensable. As they were for the planners also. One of the specific reason for the government of Gujarat choosing this particular site for the high dam in the early 1960s because in the opinion of its surveyors 'the area is sparsely populated' (and by implication, the communities who happened to live there could be moved, since it was inexpensive to do so); and the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra then also totally ignored these peoples and their entitlements in the subsequent inter-state dispute that hung the project for a decade.

But the cruel irony of the present situation is despite having now been brought onto the agenda by civil groups such as ARCH Vahini in Gujarat, by the NBA, by the Morse Commission, and by the World Bank the Adivasis seem to continue to be blanked out of the picture; sealed by the topology of history and geography. And we are now at the final stages of this drama.

Nothing can 'save' those who have already been displaced, short of the dam wall so far built being destroyed and the valley brought back to its original condition; and this gross twist of history where the Adivasis are the only victims - can only be avoided if a much reduced height is the option chosen by the Court. This is a choice that the Court has before it, but which it so far does not even seem to be conscious of even though it must surely be aware of the less complicated fact that a reduced height will mean reduced numbers of people to be displaced.

But is this too much to expect from the Court ? After all is said and done, the question of R&R (resettlement and rehabilitation) whether or not what has so far been done has been adequately done, and what should now be done is in many sense the key issue before it. As already mentioned the reports commissioned by the Court are now meant to have been handed in, by July 1. Whatever the findings of the Commissions, it was clear from the tenor of the Bench that was hearing the case during the final sessions during February-April and especially of the well-respected Justice Bharucha that it was extremely concerned about this question. It kept insisting on information from the concerned state governments as to how much land they had available for resettlement, and it was obvious that this was going to a key consideration for it in its deliberations.

(Although it often seemed that the Court was refusing to listen to the arguments put forward by the state of Madhya Pradesh about the positive impact of a reduced dam height curiously saying that this did not seem relevant to the case - , it was also fairly clear that it was doing this because it suspected that Madhya Pradesh was using this as a pretext for wriggling out of its commitments to resettlement and rehabilitation according to the original project design, and that is was not going to allow this. While this strictness has its own virtue, on the other hand it was also distressing to see that the Court seemed far more interested in getting stuck on rules than seeing whether and how it could itself contribute to reducing the number of people who would have to undergo the trauma of displacement.)

This question of resettlement indeed, was one of the main grounds of the case that was filed by the NBA in 1994 that the Court is now concluding : That there just is not enough land available in the three concerned states to resettle the total number of people that will be displaced, in all and that the state governments and project authorities are drowning and deceiving not just the oustees but the whole country, and world, by their promises that 'everything is okay', that 'there is plenty of land available', and that 'everyone being resettled is happy' when this is patently nothing like the case.

It was largely on this basis also both the question of resettlement and the very apparent mendacity on the part of the project authorities and its financiers, including the World Bank - that the NBA and its supporters world-wide managed to force the government of Japan out of the project in 1990, and then the World Bank in 1993. It was also on this basis that the World Bank commissioned an unprecedented independent review of the project in 1991, headed by the former head of the UNDP, the late Bradford Morse. And it was again on this basis confirming most of the NBA's arguments - that the independent review recommended to the Bank in its path-breaking report in 1992 that the project could only be completed 'using unacceptable means', and that the Bank should therefore 'step back' and which led the Bank to ultimately have to do this, even though India was and remains one of its most important clients. And it was also largely on this basis, and on the specific experience of the Narmada project (though after similar other experiences with other projects in Brazil and other parts of the world), that the Executive Directors of the World Bank also brought in some important changes in the structure and culture of the Bank's management and functioning, during 1990-93.

The same then took place within India, with the semi-independent review of certain aspects of the project that the central government commissioned in 1994, under pressure from the NBA and public opinion, the so-called 'Five Member Group'. This review also, though in more muted terms, found severe problems with the project. And it was only near the end of this long and sustained struggle that the NBA itself, based on all of the above, elected to approach the courts for directions in the deadlock that had developed.

It now therefore, finally, remains to be seen whether the same will also be true of the Court in this arena of last resort. But this time the situation is different. First, because the decision will in theory, at least be 'final'. But second, and more important, because it surely has to be in this forum in principle, the supreme forum in this country for the resolution of justice that the issue of social justice should be addressed most directly.

This is not the first time in the long contestation around the Narmada project that the issue of social justice has come up, but I would argue that what has not been raised sufficiently sharply till date is the specific question of discrimination against the Adivasi. As far back as in the early to mid 80s, civil activists of the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini and a voluntary organisation called ARCH (Action Research in Community Health; later to join together to become 'ARCH Vahini') successfully raised the issue that the hill Adivasis in Gujarat were being denied justice under the Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal award, and with the help of Oxfam and also the World Bank, forced the government of Gujarat to recognise their rights. But this was not in terms of their being discriminated against as Adivasis but because they were being deprived of project benefits. Similarly, the international civil organisation Survival International also took the matter up in 1985, including lodging a case about the Sardar Sarovar Project at the ILO under international human rights law but again, not in terms of discrimination.

Dr B D Sharma, at that time Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, then also raised this issue, in April 1990, in his 'A Note on Urgent Consideration of Some Basic Constitutional and Human Rights Issues in relation to the Narmada Project', which was reprinted as an Annexure to his twenty-ninth report to the government of India but again, he addressed himself to the question of their entitlements as Adivasis, and not to the politics of discrimination that is embedded in the project.

The Morse Review also clearly identified the gross injustice being done to the Adivasis as being one of the key issues involved, in its report in 1992. This observation was of specific relevance to the World Bank because the institution had a standing policy regarding the entitlements of 'tribal and indigenous peoples' and it was confronted by activists and then its Executive Directors with the argument that by allowing the project authorities to violate this policy, which was a conditionality to the loan that the Bank had made available to India in 1985, the Bank was guilty of violating its own policies. This was one of the many arguments that eventually forced the Bank out of the project. Even if there was a long struggle in the Bank over accepting the logical conclusion of the review's recommendations, and a major attempt was made from within the institution to avoid cancelling the project, and even if the Bank was finally only forced to this by the mobilisation of public and political opinion in important share-holding countries of the North, the fact remains that it did finally accept this.

The crucial question now however, is whether the Supreme Court of the country will have the supreme hubris to also do so ? but now, looking at the question not only in terms of the deprivation of freedoms and entitlements but also, and additionally, in terms of the patently gross discrimination that is taking place.

As many others have argued before me, the general shape of this situation is nothing new. All over the country, it is the Adivasi and Dalit communities that always, by rule and without exception, form the majority of those who are displaced, ousted, marginalised, and subjugated, whatever the project might be. All over the world, it is indigenous peoples who have faced the brunt of the assault of the project of 'national development' most fiercely, and where in some countries such as Brazil it has led to virtual genocide.

But as I said at the outset of this essay, and have also argued in my other articles, the Supreme Court has a very special opportunity before it in this case. 'Narmada' now no longer refers only to the river but also to the struggle over this project, to the case, and to all such struggles. It has become a universal symbol, an icon. Most certainly, it must be allowed that the Supreme Court has many crucial cases on its hands, and has to decide on many key issues. Most certainly, it is agreed that the question that this essay has tried to bring out is only one of them. But the questions remain : Has the Court been able to recognise the very special nature of the case it has in its hands ? Has it recognised that it is its manifest duty to address not only the technical aspects of the case but also the question of social justice that is contained in this project and thereby set an example ? And will it have the courage, and the vision, to struggle with the topology of history and attempt to answer the fundamental underlying question - of what kind of country it believes India is to be ?

Jai Sen
A-3 Defence Colony,
New Delhi 110 024, India
Ph+fx 91-11/464 2109 Email:


  1. In Frontline, May 12 2000.
  2. The other articles were 'Setting a tide mark', in The Hindu, March 8 and March 9 2000, p 10; 'Milestone or Landmark ? Narmada Case in Historical Perspective', in Mainstream, March 11 2000, pp 7-10 + 34-35; and 'Narmada needs a historic judgement', in The Hindustan Times, March 12 2000, p 15.
  3. May 1990 Twenty-ninth Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 1987-89. New Delhi : Govt of India.