From the SUNDAY OBSERVER

What I Learned From A Cough
Dilip D'Souza

Truly, one of the defining moments of my life came one gusting August night on a path leading to a little town called Bargi Nagar in Madhya Pradesh. Four or five of us had been tramping for hours through wet, muddy fields, stumbling over large boulders, fighting through thorny hedges, before we found the path. We were exhausted and longing for a cup of chai. It was so dark that we found our way mainly by following the sounds of the footsteps of the man in front, and I have no idea how the first guy in our little line found the confidence to stride along as surely as he was doing.

Without warning, someone coughed softly right next to me. That got a dog going, barking practically at my feet. I was so startled that it took the best part of the next 30 minutes for my nerves to stop twanging violently.

What had happened was this: as we trudged towards Bargi Nagar, we had passed through a tiny settlement, walked right past a house there. In the heavy darkness, I had not seen the house at all. I only knew it was there when the man coughed, when his dog barked.

Now I say it was completely dark. But most of the way along that path, we could see the bright lights of Bargi Nagar off in the distance. Tubelights in its dhabas. Multicoloured lights that bathed the temple on the hill. Lights lining the Bargi Dam on the Narmada River, some distance beyond the town.

And all those lights, curiously, were why this was a defining moment for me. As I walked on, looking at them but enveloped in darkness, a lot of things snapped into place.

Here was this enormous dam, supplying electricity to Bargi Nagar and far further afield. Why, I write these very words in Bombay courtesy the electricity that comes from some dam somewhere, like Bargi. Yet the authorities, whoever they were, had not felt it necessary to bring electricity to the tiny village we had just walked through. This tiny village whose residents can even see the fruits from that dam, lights only a half-hour walk away. This tiny village that remains just as dark as it has for centuries. Yes, in the darkness and mud that night, there was much that became very clear: all those arguments about dams, about the very idea of "development" as we have practised it in India. When that man coughed, they all made sense.

This sense: The way India has developed has left too many Indians in the dark.

This is why I am dismayed by last week's Supreme Court order allowing the Gujarat Government to resume construction on the Sardar Sarovar dam after four years. This construction will raise the height of the dam by 4.7 metres. 4.7 metres may not sound like a lot, but that incremental rise will drive about 3000 more families from their homes. Given the Gujarat Government's performance in resettling and rehabilitating (R&R) earlier such families -- a performance staged over and over, all through the country -- there is little reason to believe these people will be treated fairly. For despite repeated court orders to carry out R&R conscientiously, dam-builders throughout India have built an assiduous history of half-heartedness about it.

One example: In Kevadia, Gujarat, there is a neat colony for the engineers who work on the Sardar Sarovar project. Most of the land of six villages -- Kevadia itself, Kothie, Gora, Vaghadiya, Limdi and Navagam -- was acquired to build this colony. In 1992, the Morse Report estimated that nearly 1000 families were affected by this acquisition. Many villagers were paid some compensation (between Rs 90 and Rs 250 per acre, Morse reported) for the loss of their land. But most are clearly unhappy with their situation, with promises of compensation and rehabilitation not kept. "Both non-government organizations and World Bank representatives," writes Morse, "have strongly criticized Gujarat's failure to deal fairly with the six villages." His terse comment after speaking to many of these villagers: "They felt cheated."

And when was Kevadia Colony built? Work began there, and thus the land was acquired, in 1961. Nearly 40 years ago. I can think of no better measure of how the Gujarat Government has approached R&R than that figure: 40 years.

Of course, it's easy for us who think dams are disastrous to put together pages of figures to make our case. It's just as easy for those who want to build dams to gather figures to support their case. To an otherwise indifferent observer, if he cares at all, I suppose it boils down to which set of figures and arguments look more appealing. Besides, after a point, he probably doesn't care. If the years of struggle against the Sardar Sarovar dam have shown anything, it is that the otherwise indifferent observer is just sick of the numbers, the polemics. I get sick myself, of listing these dismal numbers.

That's just why it all became clear on that dark night.

If dams produce electricity that entirely bypasses those who live right there, people who most often make great sacrifices so those dams can be built, there is something profoundly wrong about building them. Something fundamentally warped in how we have chosen to "develop." And yet, for half a century now, this is really how we have pursued development: in ways that touch too many millions of Indians only by asking them to make sacrifices, only by leaving them behind.

Indians, like the man who coughed in my ear in the dark.