Submerged in rhetoric

Narmada evokes emotions, not negotiation

Published: Monday 15 May 2006

-- the character of our democracy is clear. Irrespective of political brands, politicians representing the affected people in Narmada valley never stood by their electorate. But legislators representing the perceived beneficiaries always had a bigger clout in the debate. Even if we assume that the existence of the Sardar Sarovar Project is beneficial for the nation and society, affected people had no say in this negotiated democracy.

The rehabilitation of dam-affected people in Madhya Pradesh was compromised by all political parties. The bureaucracy simply found the task too onerous and too easy to work around. Its negligence is amazing. For instance, the state does not even have the courage to tell the Supreme Court that it has no irrigated land to give to people ousted, as directed by the court (see pp 23-32). It also does little to buy land to distribute. The state is guided by the motivation that the poor can be 'managed'. It is absurd that we are still arguing about the number of people affected. On the other hand, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (nba) is also mired in contradictions. These contradictions were perhaps because of the compulsions of its campaign. In terms of communication strategy (after all, it is a campaign), it opened too many fronts. It is obvious that nba pitched its campaign on to a non-negotiable, no-big-dam strategy. But a big dam is too big to counter. If opposition is the aim, other issues become peripheral, and worse, ploys to reach no-big-dam arguments.

When a campaign becomes so large, it needs to be strong enough to be able to include diverse aspirations, to keep the end object nuanced, and peppered with other tangible issues that can be addressed. Throughout nba's history, rehabilitation has never been a positive goal. Accepting that would be an implicit acknowledgement of the dam's existence. While we can understand why the movement needed to focus on the dam, the end result has been that the movement has not been able to forcefully monitor, guide and direct the rehabilitation efforts of the thousands it has spoken for. That is why opposition to big dams has played into a game perpetuated by the state, where the 'big' question is the dam, not the displaced. And in Gujarat, the establishment is only interested in making the dam to show its clout. It is evident from the fact that the government has not created a system that can deliver the huge amount of water it has accumulated.

No one can question the importance of the debate nba has sparked off. But a debate is all it threatens to remain. The anti-dam movement has not provided answers to questions of development. And it does not seem likely to.

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