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Editor's Page

Narmada, Bhopal are issues of democracy, fair deals

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Apr 30, 2006 | From the print edition

Down to EarthOver the past few days, Jantar Mantar has been the venue of two protests -- against two of worst tragedies Independent India has witnessed. On one side of the road were activists fighting for justice for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy -- the chemical disaster that killed, maimed and devastated tens of thousands of people. On the other side were villagers and activists fighting for justice for those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam over the Narmada river -- which has submerged countless homes. Both groups had decided that they had been left with no option but the ultimate non-violent protest -- an indefinite hunger strike -- to bring justice to their cause.

Since then, there have been developments. The police have removed Medha Patkar, the indomitable woman who has fought for the rights of the people displaced by the Narmada dam, to hospital to force-feed her, intravenously. Three ministers of the Union government have gone to Madhya Pradesh to assess the state of rehabilitation and returned to file a report to the prime minister. The Narmada activists want the government to stop increasing the height of the dam until, as per judicial direction, people who will be displaced are rehabilitated. The decision of the government is awaited. The activists continue their sit-in.

The Bhopal protesters want polluters -- the then ceo of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the gas leak -- to be brought to book. They want drinking water not contaminated by the toxic chemicals dumped in the closed factory and need the government for medical relief and full compensation. They too still sit at Jantar Mantar, the 'official' protest space. Close enough to parliament to be seen but far enough to remain out of sight.

Both cases involve victims of 'development'. The answer in both cases is to find and to ensure a resolution so that not only one side wins the battle of wealth creation. All win. Or, at least, one side does not lose so desperately. But I write this today not to discuss the specifics of each case . I write this to discuss troubling issues: why is it that the Indian state is increasingly unable to find this balance? What is the nature of protest, if the democratic institutions of governance -- including electoral democracy -- fail in public perception and on the ground by failing to reconcile competing interests?

We can also ask if we even have the capacity (institutional, technical, financial) to resolve inherent conflicts? Simply put, can we really resettle thousands of families? Or, in Bhopal, do we have the capacity to treat unknown diseases or even the capacity to identify the victims correctly, without fraud. If we believe we do then we simply must deliver.

It is here that we must begin to look the state of our institutions, which need to deliver on these promises. Take Narmada. The Supreme Court, which granted permission to build the dam, gave specific directions that it would be built pari passu (in conjunction) with safeguards against environmental damage and rehabilitation of affected villages. To ensure this was done an institutional framework was set up. It involved two separate sub-groups on environment and rehabilitation. These sub-groups are headed by senior bureaucrats to the government of India -- the secretaries of environment and social justice and empowerment. It is only on their assessment that the Narmada Control Authority -- chaired by the secretary of water resources -- can give clearances. The bottom line is if these institutions 'worked' perhaps the balance could be secured.

The issue today is two-fold: first, these institutions do not work. In this specific case, because people have not been rehabilitated as was required. The other is that the institutions may have worked but people do not believe they do. In other words, these institutions have a fatal credibility crisis. In both cases, people have no option but to take to the streets -- peacefully and then with growing despair violently.

Unfortunately we talk about institutional reform using glib (and meaningless) words like accountability and participation. I say glib, because we do the opposite of what we say. Our institutions are less accountable today than they were before the information revolution. Our institutions are less open than before media and civil society empowerment. Our institutions are certainly less knowledge-driven than they were before computers and the Internet. As a result, we are fast losing our ability to 'work' democracy.

If we accept this, we must re-design. Firstly, we know that 'personnel' is 'policy'. In other words, our institutions will run as effectively as the people we put in charge of running them. Secondly, we will need to work at repairing credibility. We can do that by seriously engaging with people, by disseminating knowledge. It is increasingly the case that institutions do not engage with critics; they do not work with information and they certainly ensure that the data and information on the basis of which they take decisions is not open to scrutiny.

We still don't know, for instance, in this case of Narmada, how the sub-committee on rehabilitation and then the water resources secretary decided and verified the claims made by state governments on rehabilitation and their process to ensure that ground realities were considered. We still don't know because data is never made public; critics are never consulted; and even the affected people are never asked. The institution loses credibility. We all lose.

Our institutions are increasingly weak, because we have de-politicised governance. The role of politicians is not to be middlemen in governmental contracts but to resolve societal contracts, through arbitration and empathy. Narmada and Bhopal are about the failure of negotiated democracy. They are our failures. They are our shame.

-- Sunita Narain
 

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