Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh

Gail Omvedt's "Open letter to Arundhati Roy" has raised a number of issues, some of which need a detailed response, which I attempt below. To put things in perspective, I should state that I was involved with the first detailed critique of the Narmada Projects (back in 1983, as part of the environmental group Kalpavriksh), and have since then opposed these dams as being inherently destructive. I have also been involved for some time with environmental assessments of large projects, and would therefore like to bring in a third perspective into the debate, which has so far largely focused on (1) displacement and (2) benefits of large dams. This third perspective is the environmental one.

Ms. Omvedt's arguments are essentially along two planes : one, that NBA sustains itself more on middle-class Indian and foreign support rather than a mass local base, and two, that its oppostion to large dams as such is ill-founded. Along the way she brings in some other arguments, and takes broadsides at some other people, which I will try to respond to. This response is somewhat lengthy, for which I offer apologies to readers!


The assertion that the NBA has a "small local base" is, to say the least, rather strange and ill-informed. Some of us have just returned from the Rally for the Valley, and would have had to be absolutely blind if we were to accept Ms. Omvedt's charge. At Pathrad, one of the villages threatened with submergence by the Maheshwar Project, there were 8 to 10,000 villagers to greet the Rally. At every village and town along the Rally's route, there were tumultous welcomes, such that many reporters with us remarked that they had seen such turnouts only in election campaigns. Yet these were not 'hired' crowds, as may well happen at election rallies. Ms. Omvedt would have done well to come for the Rally, perhaps as an observer, and seen the so-called "small local base" (and its alleged middle-class character) for herself.

This is not a new phenomenon. Anyone who has attended rallies of the NBA in the last 14 years, would have been impressed at the spontaneously massive response they receive. In 1991, we walked over 200 km. through Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and across the Gujarat border (where a naked display of state power stopped us)…there were three thousand people, 95% of them local villagers, on this Sangharsh Yatra. Two 4 to 5 day long dharnas in Delhi, one of them I remember in the scorching heat of summer on the streets in front of the Prime Minister's residence, were attended by several thousand villagers. Several hundred of these were adivasis, many of whom had walked 3-4 days to get to the spot from where transportation was available to bring them to Delhi. Unless Ms. Omvedt is alleging that these are all hired hands, or that they are all afflicted by a mass "false consciousness", I cannot see how she can call this kind of participation "small".

Using the name of Waharu Sonavane to raise questions about the nature of the NBA, is illogical, and rather strange coming from an academic who should know better than to use single examples to generalise. This kind of logic can easily be countered by naming a dozen tribals who remain steadfast in their opposition to the dam, and are willing to go along with the NBA all the way. I was just last week talking to Lohariyabhai of Jalsindhi, whose hut will be the first to go under the waters if they rise another few feet this monsoon (even as I finish this essay, this submergence may be taking place). Lohariyabhai is resolute in committing "jal samarpan", and with him are thousands of other adivasis and non-adivasis. MS. OMVEDT'S CHARGES AGAINST THE NBA, AT A TIME WHEN THESE VILLAGERS ARE STRUGGLING TO SAVE THEIR LIVES AND LIVELIHOODS, THEIR LANDS AND CATTLE, ARE NOT JUST INCORRECT, THEY ARE RATHER INSENSITIVELY AND TRAGICALLY TIMED.

Ms. Omvedt, I would request you to go to Jalsindhi or Dhomkhedi, and ask them the questions you have asked Arundhati. You'll get your response in those adivasi villages. And while you are at it, go also to Pathrad, Anjad, Nisarpur and go also to the upper pada of Manibeli, already submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam, where adivasis who had resisted the submergence are now living, refusing to vacate their village even now. Ask the adivasis of Manibeli, whose huts were amongst the first to permanently go under water, who lost their cattle and goats, and yet who stand resolutely with the NBA. It is a mockery of these incredibly brave people to call them a "small local base".

This is not to assert, in any way, that the NBA's base in the valley covers the entire affected population. Undoubtedly there are dissenters, there are those who have lost courage and accepted whatever doles the state governments have handed out, there are perhaps even some who would be happy to move out (due to locally exploitative situations, a topic on which I shall come back). There would also perhaps be those, like Waharu, who have been disillusioned or ignored by NBA. No mass movement is perfect, and no mass movement can claim 100% support. But to point to these examples, and negate the clearly evident mass base of the movement, in which I would estimate that at least 30,000 to 40,000 people in the valley alone are involved, is to display a bias and lack of respect for the ground facts.

The question of why there is no "top-ranking adivasi leadership in the NBA", is important, and needs to be squarely addressed by NBA itself. But it is not a question restricted to the NBA, it can be asked of most recent movements in India. Perhaps it has to do with the history of displacement of adivasi identity, perhaps something else. Perhaps it has to do with the way in which the Indian and international media singles out 'heroes' they are comfortable with, or who belong to their 'class'. What is absolutely clear, however, is that in the decision-making process in the valley itself, both adivasis and non-adivasis are highly involved, even though Medha and other 'middle-class' activists do often have a stronger say….I have in the past participated in these processes, and will vouch for this. Ask any of the reporters who were with the Rally throughout (barring one or two who were hostile right from the beginning), and they will tell you how they were amazed at the knowledge regarding the dam and its negative impacts, regarding their legal rights, and regarding larger issues of development, that 'ordinary' villagers (adivasi and non-adivasi) displayed. This kind of in-depth knowledge, and this kind of resolute participation in activities like jal samarpan, cannot be the outcome of a purely or even predominantly urban middle-class movement.

One may raise another issue here. While it is technically, academically correct to call Medha and some other NBA activists who have their origins in the city as "middle-class", is this a valid real-life category for these people any more? Some of these activists have spent the better part of the last decade and a half living with the villagers and towns-people of the Narmada valley, on monthly stipends which are so low that Ms. Omvedt and I would perhaps not survive for more than a couple of days on them. Some of them are on no stipends at all. They have braved everything that the villagers have braved, police brutalities, imprisonment, and now the ultimate 'sacrifice' of the jal samarpan. To brand them as the "urban elite" is simply to take recourse to tired old academic categories, and to avoid facing the fact that these people have given up the trappings of their own past, and chosen to live much more difficult lives to be one with the dam-affected populations.

Incidentally, it is interesting that Ms. Omvedt, after alleging that the NBA has an "urban elite" leadership, lists the following people as leaders of the Maharashtra Rajya Dharangrast va Prakalgrast Shetkari Parishad, an organisation of farmers affected by dams and other projects that she has projected as being the sort of model that the NBA is not : Baba Adhav, Datta Deshmukh, Naganath Naikaudi, and Bharat Patankar. Now who amongst these is adivasi, or for that matter, an ordinary farmer? Can one then ask the same question of her: why is there no "top-ranking adivasi/farmer leadership" in the southern Maharashtra movement? (I am NOT alleging that there is not, merely pointing out to the fallacy of Ms. Omvedt's argument, based as it is on a biased view of the decision-making process in the NBA). What gives these people, at least some of them from urban backgrounds, more of a right to "represent" local farmers than the right than NBA activists have?

In a strange interlude, Ms. Omvedt also makes a passing reference to Avinash B.J. of Satya Shodh, an NGO working with the villagers in the Koyna area of Maharashtra. She claims that this person, a supporter of NBA, has a "little local base", and that he is making an unjust demand to let farmers remain around the Koyna reservoir, even though this would condemn them to a state of being only "agricultural labour to the bigger landowners". Both these claims are gross misrepresentations. In 1996, during the Jungle Jeevan Bachao Yatra, a band of 25-30 of us (activists, academics, and villagers affected by several national parks and sanctuaries) had travelled to some of the villages in the Koyna Sanctuary, on the eastern side of the reservoir. The response we got was very large, and everywhere, there was one demand, that they did not want to be moved out of their villages. They reiterated this demand in a recent meeting organised by the Koyna Jeevan Hakka Sanrakshana Sanghatana, a mass-based organisation which by no stretch of imagination has a "little local base". These farmers have their own lands, they are not labourers on other people's lands, they have intimate ties with the forest. Unless again this is a case of mass "false consciousness", for Ms. Omvedt to allege that Avinash is falsely representing them, is downright wrong. Perhaps she is confusing these with some of the villages on the western side of the reservoir, who are indeed badly hit by the submergence and the sanctuary, and are asking to be moved out. Again, it is illogical to generalise from these few villages and cast aspersions on another whole set of villagers or an NGO which has been helping to organise them to fight for their rights.


Ms. Omvedt states that the NBA is essentially sustaining itself with "considerable money and backing from upper middle class people in North America and Europe, not to mention Delhi and Mumbai". She contrasts it with the movement of the dam-affected in Maharashtra, with which she is associated, and which has not been able to get its mass rallies publicised in the national or international press. I'm sorry, but this sounds like sour grapes to me. To have a "weak middle class component" is not a qualification to be waved around proudly. Is there something wrong in having such a component, so long as it is built on a strong local base? As I have detailed above, the local base of the NBA is amazingly strong, and it started by mobilising such a base.

I should know this, because I was, as stated above, involved with the first critique of the Narmada projects, before the andolan had started. Our detailed report was published in 1984 (A. Kothari and R. Bhartari. Narmada Valley Project: Development or Destruction? Economic and Political Weekly Vol. XIX No. 22-23), and since then, Kalpavriksh has been active in independently updating our assessment of the Narmada projects. If indeed the anti-Narmada movement had been an essentially middle-class urban phenomenon, we would have been world-famous by now! As it has turned out, we are not, AND RIGHTLY SO. The fact is, mid-1980s onwards, the mobilisation amongst the people in the valley has been the central plank of the movement, and the middle-class support has come later, as sensitive people in cities begin to see a resonance to their own concerns in the brave struggles of the local villagers. And also as it becomes evident that the Narmada projects are not just about some local government deciding to build some dams, but that they are connected to national and global vested interests, including the World Bank and multinational companies like ABB and Siemens. Building national and global alliances to counter this kind of an invasion of human rights and environment is not to be sneered at; it was done brick by brick, on the foundation of a mass local base, and yes, using messages that were at once both logical/reasoned, and emotive. And it was successful in kicking out the World Bank, the Japanese government, and at least some of the multinational companies who were to support the project; no mean achievement (though Ms. Omvedt, given her leanings towards globalisation, may not think of these as positive achievements).

Nor has the NBA ever been flush with funds, as implied by Ms. Omvedt. Again, I am a personal witness to the first few years of mobilisation, and the kinds of hardships that both 'outside' and 'local' activists went through even to make two ends meet while mobilising affected people, the conditions in which tiny, struggling offices were set up, the way in which everyone had to desperately mobilise funds to make even one rally possible; if indeed the NBA has survived for 14 years, it is more due to the spontaneous contributions, in kind and otherwise, of the people of the valley; and to characterise the movement as being flush with middle-class money is to once again mock this painstaking approach. Ms. Omvedt in fact should also be made aware of the fact that the NBA's agitation has cost Baba Amte's incredible ashram in Warora - where leprosy patients are living the dignified life of any citizen of this country - to lose many of its donors and to face severe financial difficulties.

That the Narmada struggle touched a chord amongst national and global citizens and media, while the Krishna Valley one did not, should surely not be counted against the NBA? Indeed, it is because of this networking and alliance that many other struggles of people affected by big dams and other 'development' projects in India and elsewhere, have gained inspiration and strength. And have even made many of the urban supporters pause and question their own lifestyles, which are undoubtedly one of the causes of unsustainable and inequitable development processes.

Ms. Omvedt's allegations would have some basis if indeed the NBA was predominantly based amongst middle-class urbanites, and its news was ONLY being published in the national and international press. Neither of these is true, and anyone with an open mind can verify this by going to the valley, and by looking at the last few years of 'local' newspaper reporting. Go with a closed mind, and you may only see Medha and Alok and Chittaropa, amongst a rally of five thousand villagers, and you you will only see the reporting in the English language dailies; go with an open mind, and you may see the five thousand villagers, and the myriad reports in local dailies.

Finally, I wonder what Ms. Omvedt would say about the middle-class (including foreign) support that the Independence movement in India had, or which the National Fishworkers' Forum has (it is even part of a global alliance of fisherfolk fighting against the take-over of the seas by global commercial interests), or which the Chilika fisherfolk's movement against prawn culture has? Incidentally, representatives of some of these other mass movements had come to the Rally for the Valley, perhaps because they saw in it a reflection of their own struggles. Actually, it is ironical that Ms. Omvedt should have reservations about foreign support, given her leanings towards globalisation and liberalisation. Ironical indeed, because most of the mass movements in the country today (such as the ones named above) are fighting against the terrible attack on local livelihoods, natural resources, and democratic spaces by today's brand of globalisation, and are being helped by sensitive foreign groups in this struggle!


So now, let me tackle Ms. Omvedt's arguments that big dams are necessary, that they can be built in a more equitable way, and that the NBA is not interested in genuine alternatives.

When I started working on the impacts of large dams, I had no pre-set notions of whether they were necessary or not. I wanted to arrive at a conclusion on the basis of my own assessments, or those of others that I could lay my hands on. I worked for several years on the environmental assessment of the Narmada projects, spent a year looking at the environmental impacts of other big dams, and examined the machinery in place today to ensure the "sustainability and viability" of such dams. With other colleagues I took a brief look at the post-construction performance of three projects: Ukai (Gujarat), Indira Gandhi Canal (Rajasthan), and Hirakud (Orissa). All this was independently of the NBA. Other friends did painstaking work on Srisailam, Bargi and Rihand as well as studies of proposed projects like Suvarnarekha and Koel-Karo). Our conclusion: in today's context, and at least for the foreseeable future, big dams are ecologically unviable and socially unjustified. And there are real alternatives.

This response is already getting too long, so let me be brief. Big dams almost always mean either big displacement of people, and/or big submergence of forests or other natural ecosystems. The Narmada projects involve both. In theory, one can resettle and rehabilitate people, and perhaps with the kind of mobilisation that Ms. Omvedt talks of as having happened in the Krishna Valley, this theory can be translated into practice for a few thousand people. But for 200,000 or 300,000 people? Where is the land for resettlement? Ms. Omvedt would say in the command area - take it from the farmers getting irrigation - but again, this may be politically feasible for a few hundred, perhaps a few thousand, but for a few lakhs? Does anyone really think that so much land is available, or will be possible to obtain? And in the Narmada situation, one is talking of displacing people in Maharashtra and M.P., and giving them lands in the command area in Gujarat, where there is already an incredibly high amount of hostility to 'outsiders'. Can anyone predict the kinds of social and political tensions that may erupt, indeed, have already come up in some of the resettlement sites? Ms. Omvedt may perhaps know of the horrible incident in the Taloda, Maharashtra, when an adivasi woman already resident in the area, and defending her customary rights to land that was earmarked for the SSP oustees, was shot dead by police? Add to this the tens of thousands of farmers affected by the SSP canals (not even considered Project Affected Persons!), in Gujarat itself, and this seems an ideal recipe for social disaster. Such recipes are brewing in most areas where large-scale displacement is proposed.

Ms. Omvedt herself advocates a stand of "first the rehabilitation, then the dam". As I am sure she is aware, NBA itself took this position in its early years, and only when it was convinced that just rehabilitation of so many people was simply not possible, and that there were other critical question marks on the viability of the SSP, did it take a "no-dam" position.

The question of viability becomes even more serious when we bring in the environmental angle. Curiously, Ms. Omvedt has not dealt with this at all, except the passing remark that Koyna dam "did not submerge significant areas of forest". I have looked carefully at the environmental record of big dams, and it is not pretty. EVEN IF A LARGE DAM CAN BE MADE TO WORK, AS MS. OMVEDT SAYS, IN A "DECENTRALISED" MANNER AS FAR AS ITS SOCIAL AND POLITICAL FUNCTIONING GOES, THERE IS NO WAY IT CAN BE ENVIRONMENTALLY DECENTRALISED. It inevitably means a large-scale disruption of the river system, with inevitable large-scale impacts upstream, downstream, and at the river mouth. Experience worldwide, as in India, suggests that there is precious little humans can do to reverse the negative impacts. In India, we have already lost 1.5 million hectares of forests and countless other lands and wetlands to dams (no-one can replace a natural forest once submerged), we have endangered several species of fish and mammals by drowning their homes or blocking their migration (no-one can recreate a species once gone), and we have increased salt-water ingress along the coastline as the outflow of river-borne freshwater has decreased. Contrary to popular engineering perception, rivers do not go waste into the sea, they perform critical functions of keeping sea-water at bay (literally!), enriching fish spawning grounds with nutrients, and a dozen other functions which we only imperfectly understand. I have not yet come across a single convincing argument that such impacts can be effectively countered. Large dams are, in this sense, a classic reflection of humanity's hubris, one that makes us believe that we can 'tame' nature. And considering that the most advanced country as far as hubris is concerned, the USA, has recently started decommissioning dams (actually breaking them down), it may be worthwhile for us to pause and take stock. (For a more detailed expose of the environmental impacts of the SSP, pl. see the Kalpavriksh booklet "Environmental Aspects of the Sardar Sarovar Project". For a detailed report of the decommissioning of dams, see The Asian Ecologist, special issue on large dams, September-October 1998.

There are those who say that environmental impacts can be mitigated. Here's India's record in this respect. As part of the Government of India's Committee on Environmental Evaluation of River Valley Projects, we examined the fulfilment of environmental conditions under which 300 large dams were given clearance since 1980. In an astounding 89% of these dams, the conditions were being violated. And yet construction had not been halted. IN OTHER WORDS, THE VAST MAJORITY OF DAMS IN INDIA HAVE BEEN BUILT NOT JUST IN WAYS THAT ARE NOT ENVIRONMENTALLY COMPATIBLE, BUT IN VIOLATION OF THE LAWS OF THE LAND! This is scandal of epic proportions, one which would put Bofors and the like to shame. In most cases, compensatory afforestation has not been done, R & R is severely deficient, wildlife corridors have not been restituted, catchment areas left to erode, and so on and on. Anyone who says that big dams can be made ecologically viable (since Ms. Omvedt has not dealt with this issue, I don't know if she believes this or not) is living in a fool's paradise.

Actually, Ms. Omvedt has not really put many substantial arguments in favour of large dams, except to say that they are necessary for low-rainfall areas. This is also the main emotive argument behind Sardar Sarovar that it will dispel the desperately drought-prone situation in Kutch and Saurashtra. Will SSP actually do this, and are there no other alternative ways of reaching water to dry areas? The answer to the former is a firm NO. SSP's own official documents reveal that only 10% of Kutch and Saurashtra will actually receive the canal water according to current plans, and that too after another TWO DECADES! Getting additional areas water by lifting it from the canals will require several thousand crores of rupees more, none of which are budgeted for in the current cost-benefit analysis of the dam. The real beneficiaries of SSP are not these areas, but rather central Gujarat, where a big farmers' lobby has been extremely influential in pushing for the early completion of the project. Why? Possibly because they want to switch to sugarcane production, extremely lucrative but requiring much more water. I won't get into whether they are justified in this demand or not, but at least let us dispel the notion that the project is going to eradicate drought from Gujarat's north and north-western areas. Central Gujarat's farmers will simply hijack much of the water well before it can reach Kutch and Saurashtra…and all the sophisticated computerised network of irrigation channels thaT the SSP authorities are promising, will come to naught. (For a more detailed critique of this, please see Kalpavriksh's booklet "Muddy Waters").

So is there an alternative? When NBA and others argue for decentralised water harvesting structures in Kutch and Saurashtra, are they playing a "cruel joke" on the people of these regions? I will not venture to state with any finality that such an alternative is indeed possible for these areas, as I am not very familiar with them. But I do know of another region, also desperately dry, where indeed decentralised water harvesting has been the answer. This is in Alwar district of Rajasthan, in a region of at least two hundred villages with an average rainfall of about 600 mm. Over this region, johads and bandhs built by local villagers with NGO and some government help have transformed a "dark" (severely deficient in groundwater) zone into a "white" one (surplus in groundwater). Some 3000 small water harvesting structures have achieved this transformation, in the space of a little over a decade. Along with this has come major mobilisation of the villagers on issues of forest conservation (one of the villages, Bhaonta-Kolyala, has the country's first "public wildlife sanctuary"), sustainable agricultural development, common property management, etc. No external canal water is involved. If this is possible here, why not elsewhere? And indeed, what of the many similar experiments reported from Kutch and Saurashtra? I have only read passing references to them, but they appear promising, provided the government allows it. Recently there was a report that all other irrigation and drinking water projects in Gujarat, including in Kutch and Saurashtra, are stalled for lack of funds because all the allocated money is going into the SSP!

To argue for the Alwar type of model is not to discount other possible alternatives, including the one proposed by Paranjape and Joy. Their suggestion certainly merits close consideration by all concerned, including by the NBA. But to assert that because NBA is not interested in this one alternative, it is not interested in ANY alternatives at all, is again to betray an illogical bias. NBA has consistently asked for the search of alternatives, but has understandably been too deeply into simply fighting the upcoming projects to spend much of their own time on these alternatives (when you are fighting a fire in the house, you cannot be expected to start designing a fire-proof house at the same time). I know that they have certainly been in favour of alternatives like the small Balli Rajya Dam (mentioned by Ms. Omvedt). NOW THAT THEY HAVE FORCED THE M.P. GOVERNMENT TO CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES FOR A COUPLE OF THE BIG DAMS IN THE VALLEY, NBA IS GEARING UP TO ACTUALLY TRYING SOME OF THESE OUT. INCLUDING WATERSHED DEVELOPMENT, DECENTRALISED WATER HARVESTING, EFFICIENT WATER USE, ETC.

Ironically, it is worth asking whether Paranjape and Joy's alternative would have been devised were it not for the intense opposition to the SSP launched by the NBA! This is not a rhetorical or polemical point. Movements like the NBA force us to question many deep-set assumptions, open up questions that we thought had been answered long back, and impel us to search for more humanitarian, more ecologically friendly, ways of living our lives.

And more sustainable ways of engaging in that much-bandied about word, 'development'. When Ms. Omvedt characterises the NBA as being "anti-development", she is way way off the mark. Never once has the NBA, or indeed other mass movements like it, said that they are against development per se. But what definition of development? Whose definition of development? At whose cost, at whose benefit? And at what cost (or benefit) to yet unborn generations?


And so to the final of my points of response. Ms. Omvedt, in characterising NBA as "anti-development", says that it is only development of the kind promoted by the movement supporting 'equitable' big dams in the Krishna Valley, which will bring caste-ridden, exploited people in India's villages out of their misery. Presumably she thinks the Narmada dams can also do this, albeit if the NBA or others were to struggle for the equitable distribution of benefits from it. She ridicules Arundhati's vision of traditional India, with every house full of bags of grain, and points out the severe inequities in rural areas as the real story.

Once again, Ms. Omvedt makes two basic logical mistakes, which perhaps is pardonable for an artist, but not for an academic, and not in a debate like this. The first mistake is that of generalisation of a reality which is immensely complex and not amenable to generalisations. The second mistake is to compare a "no-dam" situation with an "after-dam" one ignoring the third possibility, of an "no-dam but alternative projects" situation.

The first mistake is made perhaps both by Ms. Omvedt and by Arundhati. India's villages are indeed full of severe social and economic exploitation. But this is not so everywhere, and the degrees and kinds vary considerably. Surely Ms. Omvedt knows, far better than I, that many parts of adivasi India do not display the kinds of caste exploitation that non-adivasi India does. And that in case after case, where such adivasis have been forced out of their lands and villages, they have ended up as industrial or urban labour, as servants, as child labour, as sex workers, as faceless nameless workers who are exploited more brutally than any exploitation they would have traditionally seen?

I just came back from Dhomkedi and Jalsindhi, adivasi villages in the submergence zone. Life there is not easy, it is not worth romanticising. But people have things to eat, when their crops fail, they have forests to fall back upon. They have flowing water to use. They have productive lands to cultivate. And they have their cultures, their relationships, their gods, to take shelter in. Uprooted for a dam of dubious benefit, even with the most 'generous' R&R package, will they really get all this? And if indeed they are facing problems (such as health and nutritional deficiencies) in their existing settlements, surely it is rather round-about to suggest that their only salvation lies in being uprooted and being given solutions to these problems somewhere else? People in Manibeli had asked the right question: why was no road built to their village for decades, while it suddenly came up when the dam construction started and they had to be resettled? Why not bring appropriate (culturally and ecologically sensitive) 'developmental' inputs to where people are, to Dhomkhedi and Jalsindhi? Activists are fighting for such 'in-situ' facilities even in slums in cities, rather than displacing slum-dwellers and dumping them on the outskirts of the city so why not in every village of the country? Indeed, would it not be more sensible to help local people everywhere to gain the capacity to once again take control over their own lives, their own local natural resources (here I agree with Ms. Omvedt that one of the problems is the take-over of forests by the state). Rather than argue that a "no-dam" scenario would condemn them to eternal exploitation and misery?

I would make the same argument for non-adivasi areas, or many adivasi areas, where indeed there is severe social exploitation. These have to be tackled at site, not by displacing them first and then using this as a means of tackling them. In the example I gave above of Alwar district, caste heirarchies are still strong, but they are just beginning to be whittled down, especially as the whole village has to unitedly make and maintain johads, and to conserve their forests against outside vested interests. Indeed, the NBA's own mobilisation has begun to have this effect adivasi and non-adivasi members, who would have traditionally shunned each other, are eating together, living together, WILLING TO DIE TOGETHER. Some of those sitting for jal samarpan in Lohariyabhai's hut in Jalsindhi or in Dhomkhedi, belong to the big landlord class in Nimad in M.P. By no means have inequities disappeared in the NBA-mobilised areas of the valley, but surely, what stronger force for fighting against such inequities than being part of a long-term struggle together? And putting into practice alternative modes of even education, such as the Jeevan Shalas initiated by the NBA in the valley? At least in these schools, and in the rallies and the dharnas and the myriad meetings and other activities of the NBA, "knowledge, grains, and songs" are shared equally….including the most incredibly evocative version of our national anthem that was sung by adivasis and non-adivasis and middle-class activists together, on August 4th, at Dhomkhedi, a song which spoke of having control over one's destiny and ones natural and social resources, a song that accompanied the unfurling of a flag which stated, simply "hamare gaon mein hamara raj".

And in any case, can anyone make out a convincing case that big dams in India have been a major force in reducing exploitation and poverty, more than, say, small-scale water harvesting structures? Ms. Omvedt says that "big dams can be sustainable and work in a decentralised manner" can she give a few examples where this has indeed happened (not just on paper, but on the ground), as documented by independent observers? Perhaps it has, but it would be useful to get some evidence. When we did the study of Hirakud, Ukai, and IGNP, we inquired from various agencies whether there was a single case of an assessment which comprehensively looked at the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a big dam. The sad truth is, there is no such assessment.

One last word. I, like many other supporters of the NBA and critics of big dams, am not starry-eyed about the ability of movements like the NBA to solve all the ills plaguing our society. They have failings, like we all do. They must be offered firm but constructive criticism, criticism that helps them to evaluate themselves just like we must be able to evaluate ourselves based on questions they are asking. But to denigrate them with sweeping statements and biased generalisations, AND TO DO SO WHEN THEIR MEMBERS ARE IN THE MIDST OF A DESPERATE STRUGGLE AGAINST DROWNING, is to not only be insensitive, but to play right in the hands of the repressive state which Ms. Omvedt otherwise so rightly criticises. That is the tragedy of the content and timing of her "open letter".

Ashish Kothari
11 August, 1999