A survey of a World Bank-funded environment programme in Assam
We had gone there anticipating trouble -- after all, the previous Global Environment Facility (gef) project we had visited was attended by angry scientists and even angrier adivasis. That was at Nagarahole, Karnataka, where we were threatened with arrest for merely showing a film on the discontent that gef had aroused. But things were different in Assam -- the critical, political spectacles we've learned to see gef through hardly prepared us for the widespread praise that we found for the gef- and United Nations Development Programme (undp)- administered small grants programme (sgp) in the state.
At Bhattacharya's premises, Czech-built (and now swastika-inscribed) turbines are run with the aid of a computer, which the estate's electrical engineer calls his master, for it informs him whenever problems arise and also how to remedy them. It is another matter that if the computer malfunctions, fixing it requires directions from the Czech Republic. We were left wondering if there was really nobody in India with the required expertise. Moreover, aren't the many consultants bought in by undp supposed to train local people? For his part, Bhattacharya was not sure if the project could be replicated in other parts of the state: it is very rare for the entire extent of a suitable hydel site to be owned by one person. And given the region's troubled politics, engagement in lands belonging to different people is simply too precarious a proposition -- especially to distribute project benefits.
In Barpeta -- a region troubled by Bodo militancy -- our hosts were effusive in enthusiasm: Please come and see, the money has just arrived, the villagers are giving land and the local member of legislative assembly has promised a park. En route we passed howitzers travelling away from the Bhutanese border. With local ultras on the run from camps overrun by that nation's royal army, our hosts had invited a jeep-load of well-armed police to attend to a rare foreign visitor. On arrival we were presented to an audience of white-clad people. Was this treatment because our hosts initially thought we were from the undp?
The state of the riverbank in Barpeta was a real shock and the villagers' interest in the project very real. The embankment is barely a metre wide in places and the threat to 30 low-lying villages from the Pohumara -- a yearly fierce tributary of the Brahmaputra -- was clear. But the gef theoretically supports action by undp, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank only in projects with 'global ramifications'. How had the national sgp steering committee been persuaded to fill in this particular gap, we wondered? But then, these are anomalies of gef in Assam.
Zoe Young is a UK-based filmmaker and author of A New Green Order? The World Bank and the Politics of the Global Environmental Faciliy, Pluto Press, London
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