FOR sheer numbers, the coming together last fortnight of the dam-affected people of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan at Deoli in the Tonk district of the last named state was a small affair, but nonetheless significant. It is yet another reminder of the myriad of struggles over the destruction of human habitats and lifestyles wrought in the name of development, which are ongoing in several parts of India.
These, however, often escape the gaze of public attention because the so-called mainstream, ironically a self-termed category, invariably relegates any protest by those who are directly or indirectly afflicted by environmental degradation as marginal to the affairs of this country. This perception has gained, above all, from the disdainful attitude of the larger political parties, who, by and large, have been unconcerned about the issues being raised by numerous local level environment movements since the early '70s.
Such relegation, first of all, speaks volumes for the nature of the mainstream development strategy being pushed by the instruments of the Indian state. In its basic orientation as well as in terms of its final impact, it continues to be heavily resource intensive and destructive. Second, it also displays the contempt of those social groups and classes who are privileged enough to be able to influence the state about the predicament of the comparatively worse off people whose life and living depends on a more sustainable use of nature. Third, in its arrogance, it displays the belief of the former group that they would never be countered, leave alone be checked, by the latter.
But the political landscape at the grassroots is hardly barren. For the diverse unknown groups who were represented at Deoli, their gathering was an assertion that they are not at all politically passive. Far more than the messages of more famous activists associated with the Chipko movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, their presence demonstrated that there are many sites of environmental struggles, discrete locales where people are determinedly clear of their opposition to mainstream notions of development. It would be fanciful, even ridiculous, to imagine the Deoli meet to be the forging of any new or alternative political force. It would be myopic to miss it as a reminder that those who are mistaken to be the wretched of the earth exist non-politically. They protest domination by the mainstream at innumerable points, often through informal networks of resistance.
In its assertion, "We shall have our right," Deoli was one of these. Interestingly, even the preachers of participation, holding out visions of slightly benign forms of mainstream development would do well to acknowledge this occurence. At the Deoli meet, one Jaipur-based consultant, who had argued for the involvement of dam-displaced people in government plans for their rehabilitation, was given the short shift. "We do not want to be displaced in the first place," asserted a group affected by the Bisalpur dam. This was just an admonition that, more than simply participate in development sponsored by the others, people want to actively perceive and shape change themselves.
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