Narmada Samachar: 22 January 2001


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SSP-related news

NBA Press Releases

Criminal Case of Defamation Case Against 'Advertisement' filed;
Comparison of the Struggle with US Presidential Election is Absurd;
NBA Challenges the Accusers to Prove The Allegations of Foreign Hands and Treachery
NBA Press Release - Jan 20, 2001

Press Clippings

SSP -- Centre and states squabble over legal technicalities ; Indian Express - Jan 15
NBA warns against cash compensation ; Indian Express - Jan 16
NBA warns MP against cash compensation ; Deccan Herald - Jan 16
Sardar Sarovar Case: What now? ; People's Reporter - Dec 10-25, 2000

News related to water problem in Gujarat

Mahi or Narmada: Which river would quench Saurashtrians' thirst ; Times of India - Jan 20
People of Saurashtra, and especially those of Rajkot, Jamnagar and Gondal,
are in a quandary as to which river water they are eventually going to get.
Will it be the Narmada or the Mahi?

During the last two years, the state government had been sending conflicting
signals to the people of Rajkot and the region. While sometimes people were
told that they were going to get Mahi waters by March and April, at other
times they were told that it would be the Narmada waters which would quench
the thirst of Rajkotians.

CM inaugurates IInd phase of Saurashtra pipeline project ; Times of India - Jan 16

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Other news

Draconian Shades ; Kalpana Sharma; The Hindu - Jan 21
A new law in Madhya Pradesh gives the police wide-ranging powers to curb
dissent in the name of combating terrorism. KALPANA SHARMA, with inputs
from LALIT SHASTRI, examines the issue. 
Bahuguna at Kumbh, sounds alarm over damming Ganga ; Rediff on the Net - Jan 20

Feature Article: Why Ambedkerites should be against large dams - Rohan D'Souza

Seminar - December 2000

Chandrabhan Prasad?s article entitled ?The New Life Movement Versus
Narmada Bachao Andolan? (The Pioneer, 22 October 2000) adds yet another
angle to the issue of democracy and development in India. The article,
perhaps, for the first time ever, has invoked Ambedkar?s notion of the New
Life Movement, his ideas on modernization and his critique of Gandhian
traditionalism as arguments for the rejection of the NBA and Medha Patkar
in particular. Prasad, undoubtedly, has legitimate grounds to bring in the
legacy of Ambedkar into the large dam controversy.

Post-independence India?s ?romance? with large dams has wrongly been
attributed entirely to Nehru?s vision for industrialization through
multi-purpose river valley projects. It was B.R. Ambedkar, who, in fact,
throughout the mid 1940s, as the then Member for Labour in the Viceroy?s
Council, played the most central role in introducing large dam
technologies into India. Not only did Ambedkar deploy his considerable
charisma and skills in helping set up the Central Water Irrigation and
Navigation Commission but was instrumental in resolving several
inter-provincial problems of coordination and finance that had dogged the
first projects viz., the Hirakud and Damodar Valley dams. (See Thorat,
ed., Ambedkar?s Contribution to Water Resources Development, Central Water
Commission, Delhi, 1993.)

Ambedkar made it amply clear in several of his pronouncements on water
projects that he viewed such technologies and a scientific worldview as
key determinants in the struggle against the obscurantism and backwardness
of caste Hinduism and any traditionalism that was rooted in India?s
exploitative social and political institutions. Inspired by the Tennessee
Valley Project dams (TVA), he was keen on enabling Indian engineering
expertise to benefit from interacting and acquiring help from the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation, the leading organization that undertook large dam
projects in the United States in that period. In sum, Ambedkar was an
enthusiast for large dam construction and advocated their adoption in
India, not merely as technical interventions but as a necessary complement
to realizing a modern social vision. In other words, Ambedker did not, as
much as he could not, isolate his ideas on modernization from its several
social implications.

Prasad?s unease with NBA?s ?traditionalism?, therefore, must be situated
in the larger politics of the urgency for dalit?s to comprehensively
reject India?s cultural past and ethos, which reifies and reminds them of
their bondage by brahminism. Tribals, consequently, for him are not
pristine ecological communities or bearers of a harmonious social
homogeneity but subjects principally constituted by their economic
backwardness, social oppression and political marginality. Emancipation of
both - the dalits and tribals - for Prasad, consequently, lies precisely
in their being uprooted or displaced. Development is, in a sense, for him,
a complete severance with the past; a wrenching of India?s most oppressed
from the traditions of their land, the locality, the village and their
rural/natural social and economic context. These masses thus uprooted and
dispersed by development projects, in his opinion, would then be relocated
in India?s urban centres, wherein they could finally begin to grapple with
the task of acquiring a new material and cultural world anchored in
science, technology and the ?enlightenment? of the West (i.e. explicitly
non-Indian). Development, for Prasad, is a concrete annihilation of
India?s rural past.

It is important to understand that Prasad?s ire against the NBA and Medha
is less concerned with their arguments against the Narmada scheme than it
is with what he considers to be their fatal innocence of India?s complex
social reality. The defense of the tribal world, its natural way of life
and the upholding of the Gandhian rural ideal is, in many ways, to Prasad
a recall for the ancient oppression through caste and thereby runs counter
to Ambedker?s strategy to batter down moribund brahminism with science,
technology and westernization. Progress is the burying of the
past/tradition, not its celebration, and modernity is to act unambiguously
as the latter?s solvent. Prasad?s hope to use large dams in this mission,
however, may be misplaced in the light of a vast body of new evidence on
the performance of river valley projects.

Large dams are now correctly considered to be non-viable technologies and
are no longer, save for parts of the Third World, accepted as part of the
development package. Definitive and conclusive evidence exists that their
costs far outweigh their benefits. Besides eroding the environmental
integrity of river regimes, destroying wetlands, eliminating natural fish
runs, negatively influencing micro-climates and even inducing seismic
vulnerability, these structures have inevitably been mobilized by elites
to intensify social inequity. Large dams, moreover, have rarely, if ever,
been able to deliver the quantity of benefits listed in their pre-project
claims. It is galling that the Government of India has to this day not
instituted a single impartial and comprehensive review to assess the
performance of any one of its multi-purpose projects, despite the
investment of millions of rupees of tax payers? money on them.

The United States played the single most important role in influencing and
enabling India?s post-independence romance with large dams. Teams of
American engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation helped scout sites,
outline plans and formulate designs for many of the large dams. In fact,
well into the late 1950s, American private engineering firms, construction
companies and suppliers of heavy equipment swelled the ranks of large dam
specialists ?developing? India?s water resources. Such was the level of
interaction between the countries in the field that Nehru, on his visit to
the United States in 1948, personally involved himself in the effort to
hire a chief engineer for the Damodar Valley Corporation.

In the United States today, however, the enthusiasm for large dams has
been completely arrested and reversed. Not only is there a cap on the
construction of any such schemes on its rivers, but the government is also
actively pursuing a policy for decommissioning existing dams by physically
removing them in several instances. On the other hand, investments are now
being redirected for river restoration, flood-plain recovery by phasing
out embankments, wetland revival and the rehabilitation of river
eco-systems for fisheries.

Three factors have broadly combined to cause this retreat. First, popular
pressure generated by environmentalists has decisively swung the public
mood against large dams. Second, scientific opinion and reviews of some of
the existing projects have been conclusive in questioning its beneficial
role and have successfully revealed that costs (both social and
environmental) have been grossly underestimated. Third, is the idea of
?ecological modernization?, which has begun to acquire many adherents.

Proponents for ecological modernization argue that those societies which
invest in preserving and enhancing their natural endowments in current
times will in the future be able to gain immense economic and political
benefits. The argument being that regimes possessing relatively better
ecological stability will draw from the advantage of having to spend less
on habitat restoration and pollution mitigation, besides being spared
social unrest induced by eco-system breakdowns.

The far sightedness of ecological modernization is, of course, an
impossible vision for India?s current ruling elites. Timber contractors,
quarrying interests, sweatshop factory owners, petty traders, green
revolution farmers and big industrialists, to name a few, are under no
compulsion to have a vision of development that is based on anything but
profit in the short run. They have gone through great trouble to deform
the political process in the last 50 years and reduce ?democracy? in India
to an instrument for their interests. A dam on a river is electricity for
their factories and cities, it is cheap irrigation water for their hybrid
monocultures, and so many millions of rupees in easy cement or
construction contracts for their relatives and friends. The nation needs
development and the nation is theirs.

One must also not be innocent of the several sociological peculiarities
that colour India?s enterprise for development. A sociology of rule and
economic growth that has ancient roots continues to specifically target
tribals, dalits and swathes of other marginalized social groups for
further impoverishment. In the case of the tribals and dalits even crumbs
of economic benefits to thin layers of their populace have not translated
into social equality for them. Not surprisingly, one finds Medha Patkar
stating that ?people have been left out of the process of development? and
Prasad, in his article, reiterates that the dalits ?viewed the freedom
movement with suspicion.? A suspicion that was also expressed by the
Communist Party of India in 1947 when it was singular in warning that
freedom was being emptied of its democratic content by the new rulers.

The debate on large dams in India must, therefore, be understood in the
backdrop of its political economy and political culture. Consequently,
Prasad?s interpretation of project displacement as a simple act of
physical relocation and his hope in modernization as a solvent of rural
idiocy and oppression is an unqualified assertion. Project displacement is
actually one element of a part of a broader and insidious process wherein
large masses of the Indian people are being dispossessed from their
ownership of and access to their means of subsistence while being slammed
into the ranks of the urban proletariat and landless agricultural wage

In other words, the majority of the 40 odd million project affected
persons (PAP) in the last 50 years in India, have been commodified into
wage labour through the state?s use of direct physical violence rather
than the invisible hand of the market. The PAP?s subsistence resources
have been seized, their forests eliminated, their rivers dammed, their
lands drowned and all, with the exception of a few, unceremoniously flung
onto the vagaries of the economy after being reduced to owners only of
their labour power for barter and wage. No understand ing of project
displacement can ignore this fact and explains why the Indian government
has, to this day, not had a single instance in which PAP?s have been
meaningfully rehabilitated.

The government has, in fact, only recently been compelled, after intense
popular pressure, to accept the idea of land for land as a principle for
compensation, that too only in some projects. The truth is that the PAPs
were never meant to be rehabilitated or compensated. Instead, they were
expected to be consigned to the vast numbers that provide cheap labour in
India?s sweat-shops - her unorganized and informal industrial sectors - or
turned into seasonal wage labourers for capitalist farmers.

This explains why, albeit in a somewhat looped manner, Medha?s passionate
defense of the tribal way of life and Arundhati?s lyrical prose
celebrating their struggle must be considered as progressive politics
aimed at preserving subsistence economies from violent capitalist
expropriation. In essence, the NBA?s intervention on displacement and
rehabilitation must be understood as attempts to prevent the marginalized
from being further impoverished and condemned to wage labour. Prasad would
do well to accept that project displacement is not mere physical
relocation but part of a political trajectory intrinsic to a capitalist

On the other hand, Prasad is correct in arguing that the dalits who
comprise the large majority of India?s rural landless labourers, need to
be displaced from their oppressive location in India?s rural landscape.
However, he needs to emphasize that this displacement must be through a
process of empowerment, i.e. education, land distribution or government
jobs, and not simple physical relocation. The history of project
displacement in India has thus far overwhelmingly resulted in the
displaced communities being emasculated, both socially and economically.

But all displaced communities are not necessarily only tribals and dalits
and Prasad does well to point out that the PAPs of the Sardar Sarovar
Project (SSP) include both tribals and a large number of landed patidars,
who are capitalist farmers in the Nimad or Narmada valley. These patidars
are not only practitioners of green revolution farming but use
agricultural wage labour for their operations. On surface, it clearly does
appear politically awkward that the patidars have found themselves
embracing both an environmental movement and the demand for social equity.

In effect, the patidars must betray their class interests in order to be
genuine constituents of the NBA. But here, rather than flaying the NBA for
cynicism or political opportunism in evoking only the tribal as the
victim, one must credit them for their clarity in insisting that the basis
of the struggle is entirely pivoted on the world of the tribal. This
posture assumes supreme importance when one considers the fact that the
Digvijay Singh government in Madhya Pradesh is more than willing to press
for the reduction of the height of the SSP from 488 ft to 436 ft in order
to save the patidars lands. The NBA, however, has been singularly firm in
demanding the total abandonment of the project because at any height the
dam will primarily drown and wound tribal lands and forests.

The patidars are undoubtedly in the NBA because it is the only
organization that can enable them to save their lands. The NBA, on the
other hand, must be credited for drawing the patidars into the agitation
without allowing them to define the agenda or set the terms of the
struggle. A review of the NBA literature makes it amply clear that the
struggle against the Narmada scheme is not a defense for green revolution
capitalist farming but a democratic movement for justice, equity and
genuine development for the most oppressed sections of the populace.

If one is to understand Ambedkar?s encouragement of river valley projects
as part of his effort to bring about social equity through modernization,
then one need only extend the same logic along his path of reasoning and
reject large dams because they have failed on both counts. Enough evidence
and documentation exists to prove that large dam projects are causing
dangerous and irreversible damage to the environment and thereby
undermining modernization in the long run. Evidence also exists to show
that in India there has not been a single case in which PAPs have been
empowered through rehabilitation, after being displaced by a large dam
project. Again, not because rehabilitation policies were not properly
carried out but precisely because they were effectively implemented as
measures to dispossess the marginal and poor from their subsistence means.

It bears reiteration that large dams are one amongst a number of
instruments fashioned by our ruling elites to centralize control over
public resources and redirect them for the exclusive use of a few. Damming
a river is one way of taking it away from the fisherman, tribal, dalit and
others on the margins of the national economy. The same river transformed
into killowatts and irrigation water (for hybrid crops) now advances the
interests of a new layer of society. The majority of the PAPs meanwhile
crowd cities and lodge in slums in abysmal conditions of poverty and
destitution and inevitably become the reserve army of labour so vital to
depress wages in the capitalist economy.

Meanwhile, in the long run, the flora and fauna of the river is destroyed;
salinity overwhelms its irrigated command area; its waters are rendered
sterile after their chemical composition and temperature is altered and
finally the complex ecology linking wetland, drainage and tributary is
irreversibly disrupted. Then the reservoir silts up and the dam dies. All
those who benefited and all those who suffered will be united by one
reality - no river.

Prasad has correctly expressed his misgivings about ?traditionalism?. He
is accurate in emphasizing that the dalit condition can only be rescued by
a rejection of India?s past. He must also be credited for being prescient
in acknowledging the role of modernization, science and technology as
liberators of India?s socially and economically oppressed. Consequently,
on reviewing India?s experience with river valley projects, upon judging
its proponents, on identifying its actual beneficiaries, and examining its
impacts and assessing its politics, it must occur to an Ambedkerite that
the search for equity, justice and progress must also be a struggle
against large dams.