Keep the debate within the country

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE MORSE committee has asked the World Bank to step back from the Sardar Sarovar project. Whether the bank complies or not, the committee has undoubtedly delivered a resounding indictment of all those involved in the project -- from the governments of Gujarat and India to the mighty World Bank. There is no doubt that the Gujarat government has failed to inspire confidence in its ability or efforts to provide a fair deal to those likely to suffer because of the project. The committee has pointed out a number of glaring deficiencies, such as the rehabilitation of canal-displaced and landless people living in the submergence zone.

The history of rehabilitation of project-displaced people in India is one of officially-sanctioned deceit and treachery. In project after project, land was acquired for irrigation, industry and other bureaucracies, but their promises were quickly forgotten.

If the government has not come up with a comprehensive, humane and uniform approach to rehabilitate project-displaced people, then it definitely needs to suffer the kind of embarrassment it has at the hands of the Morse committee.

It is time that official attitudes changed so that economic development programmes are not seen as unfair and anti-people. Obviously, development should not benefit one set of people at the expense of another. The cost on humans must be avoided to the maximum extent possible, and where the costs are unavoidable, the project authorities and, ultimately, the beneficiaries must pay the full costs of the benefits they receive, including the environmental and human costs. Furthermore, the costs should be pegged at a level so that the environment actually improves and the project-affected emerge better off economically and socially.

That the dry areas of Gujarat should get the benefit of Narmada waters and so in turn produce food for themselves and the rest of the country, cannot be questioned. But the question that Gujarati politicians should be asked is what price are they prepared to pay for the Narmada waters? There can be some legitimacy in a government using its coffers to subsidise an interest group or a vote bank for this. That is unavoidable in a democracy. But no government can force some people to sacrifice, simply because it wants to subsidise others.

There is an unfortunate tendency amongst politicians to view environmental and human rights opposition to development projects as opposition to development per se and then embark on a tirade of incessant rhetoric. Politicians must, instead, display greater honesty and internalise the lessons thrown up by such opposition. If the Morse report is considered by them in that light, some good may still come out of it.

The Central and Gujarat governments have done a disservice to the democratic credentials of the country at every stage of the Narmada issue. When the anti-dam activists were trying to get the project reviewed, they refused to enter into any kind of dialogue with them. In fact, politicians in Gujarat spurned anyone suspected of having any doubts about the efficacy of the Sardar Sarovar projects. Surely such attitudes are unacceptable in a democratic society.

Having spurned its own people, the government then compounded its errors by accepting the World Bank's decision to set up a review committee. It should have rejected the committee outright for how a society decides to use its natural resources is its own business. Sustainable development is possible only through cultural plurality and not through multinational uniformity, however much pundits from the North may try to teach us. Definitely, no moneylending organisation -- and especially the World Bank -- should be permitted to step outside its brief. Nor can we accept the World Bank's worldview or the worldview of those it chooses to name to such panels as the Morse committee, to become our worldview, simply because it is lending money to us. The management of natural resources is a subject that calls for democratic debate -- but within our home.

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