Damn not the oustees

The human tragedy that will unfold as a result of the Sardar Sarovar dam has to be mitigated

Published: Wednesday 15 November 2000

The Supreme Court judgement on Sardar Sarovar Project ( ssp ) has a lesson for environmentalists: if the judiciary is asked to decide between the environment and development, it will choose development. Therefore, the judges must be presented with a case that integrates the two issues. In the case of the dam on Narmada, this was not done. Given the Narmada Bachao Andolan's antipathy to all big dams in general, the judges were mainly asked to order that a big dam like ssp should not be built. This is evident from a reading of the judgements. The court merely saw the issue as one of development versus environment, and decided to opt for what in its view was development. In this case, held as it was against the backdrop of tremendous media hype on the issue of big dams, the judges were put in a position where they were being asked to decide on the 'best' development strategy for the country. The case in many ways became too big. The judgement, therefore, became too small. In any case, it is not a choice that judges can be asked to make. Choice of development strategy has to be made by the people and their elected representatives in a democratic country.

On the big dams versus small water harvesting structures issue, it would be proper to mention that both structures are needed. The intensively irrigated tracts created by large dams can help create national food security by generating pockets of high agricultural production with a high marketable surplus. Small water harvesting structures can help farmers gain local food security and protect them from drought. This will help them meet their own food needs. Therefore, a massive movement for water harvesting is needed. But where required -- and where they are ecologically and socially feasible -- the government can build large dams. The debate therefore should never have been brought down to the level of small versus big dams. Nor was it wise to ask the judges to arbitrate on the merits of big dams, which for many people mean development.

But nor is the ssp case about the environment, as the dissenting judge has said in his judgement. The environmental impact of the ssp is on the whole manageable and can be mitigated if sincere efforts are made. To our mind the real issue is rehabilitation. At present there is no guarantee that resettlement will be done properly. A tremendous human price will be paid for this dam. No matter what the Gujarat government might say, state governments have had an atrocious track record on rehabilitation. The Union government, too, has been a mere spectator to this tragedy.

There is no reason to believe that the state governments of Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh have the capacity or even the will to ensure that rehabilitation of the displaced takes place. Rehabilitation is intricately linked with the water Gujarat badly needs. The catch is that the dam must reach the height of at least 110 metres for water to fill the canals laid out in Gujarat. The court has made it so that if the dam is to proceed beyond the height of 90 metres, it requires full compliance with the tribunal's award, and relief and rehabilitation requirements. For this the court has set up a review committee. But clearly, this is not enough. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these authorities will take care of the oustees now that the judgement has been given, when there is adequate proof that they have failed in the past. It is not enough to say, as do the judges, that "there is no reason to assume that these authorities will not function properly."

The mp government has already stated there is no land for resettlement. The court has merely castigated it and but said that it must do its duty. Putting the ball into the court of the nca is not acceptable. The agency has shown no willingness to take the human cost into account. There is no reason to believe that this will change in the future. Then there is the issue of what is meant by effective resettlement. Displacement from one's home is bad enough. When this is done in a manner that is shoddy, inhuman and insensitive, it is lethal. The tribal community of one village is relocated into different villages, separating brother from brother in many cases. This is what resettlement has meant in almost all development projects. In most cases when land is given, it is marginal and of poor quality. It makes the displaced even more destitute than the destitute. In some cases the state encroaches upon common property resources like grazing lands or forest lands, in the process displacing the most marginalised of the poor who depend upon these for livelihood.

The problem is also that the people who are to pay the price of development never asked. The only way justice can be done is that communities that are to be displaced are allowed to set their price and given the legal rights to choose. It is here that the court has failed the poor tribal people.

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