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Politics of water resource management in India

Book>> The Politics of Water Resource Management in India by John R Wood Sage Publications 2007 pages 285 Rs 625

Published: Monday 15 October 2007


John R Wood's unimaginatively titled The Politics of Water Resource Management in India has a cache of photographs, apparently as an aid to better illustrate the topic. Among the multiple shots of the grand looking Sardar Sarovar is a picture of a ragtag group of young boys and girls standing adorably in a row, smiling gleefully at the camera. One wonders, why are they so delighted? These children from Vadgam, reads the caption, are among the first people to be uprooted and displaced by the dam. What could possibly present a clearer picture of what is going on there than that?

The problem with this book is not that it unquestioningly supports the dam in any and all aspects, nor that it completely ignores the contentions of people still living in the region about to be submerged. The problem is that it presumes to transcend any 'position' on the matter.

Wood's glib, western sense of justice, presented in a very textbook-like tone and format (unsurprising, since he is a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada), has resulted in an assessment, lacking political analysis. Most often outsiders judge the situation falsely in attempting to judge it 'fairly' and Wood is culpable of exactly that.
The larger paradigm Wood reveals the much larger paradigm under which he labours. In his trimming of the unwieldy circuitry of a complex issue to remain focused on the politics, Wood has lopped off more than one crucial aspect. His drab prose is replete with mistakes and omissions.

There are a few stunningly insensitive remarks in favour of the dam as well. At one instance he dismisses critic Arundhati Roy's views as overly emotional and uninformed and at another he calmly vindicates the Gujarati ideological and political outlook as 'pragmatic'.

Further, Wood goes on to say "Anti-dam protestors argue that the ratio of Narmada's costs-to-benefits is unacceptable, while the pro-dam protagonists will defend it, and also ask who raised the costs?" [Emphasis added].

And in what respect would those in favour of the dam defend the costs to benefits ratio is unknown. The conflation of fact with fiction is just a logical extension of his kind of 'academic focus'. As a brief example, I offer his reference to a pari passu condition, "As it was called in the Narmada Water Distribution Tribunal (NWDT) award" which he says calls for rehabilitation of oustees six months in advance.

There are several problems here. One is that there is no pari passu condition in the NWDT award of 1979. The pari passu condition to which he may be referring is part of the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) conditional clearance in 1987. Had he had the insight, Wood might have touched on the controversy around the very term pari passu itself. Many felt it was a byword for negligence, in that not only was the rehabilitation not taking place pari passu, but not at all.

The then chief justice B N Kirpal's now infamous verbal sleight-of-hand which turned the MoEF requirement stating that rehabilitation was 'to be completed ahead of reservoir filling' into an implication of pari passu still remains as a marvel of the transformative power of courtspeak. And Wood has got it all wrong there.

In addition, pari passu is an adverb meaning 'concurrently,' so the obvious question is how uncritically an academician succeeds to blur rehabilitation clauses from two different documents and still getting published by a publisher of academic repute?

This is not all. He downplays the atrocities in Manibeli of March 1992, during which a girl was raped and the town was surrounded by police goons for two months; the 'successful' uprooting and moving of the devastated town of Harsud to New Harsud was referred to with equanimity; he neglects to mention the fact that all MoEF conditions were and still remain violated; and he seems to believe that everyone who had been 'officially' resettled is pleased with new situation, which is wildly off base and is a sentiment which, if nothing else, shows that this is one man who has not been to many rehabilitation sites, if any. The list goes on.

Later, Wood impertinently refers to human rights as a 'thorny issue' and uses those same words again in reference to the much-maligned and now totally disproved 11.2 million ha upon which the NWDT award was based. A 'thorny issue,' he says. Maybe it is a penchant for understatement, but I might have chosen an adjective other than 'thorny' to describe those two specific issues. Words like 'central' and 'devastating' come to mind.

Ultimately, it was the Morse Commission's Independent Review that drudged up unnecessary 'delay' and 'controversy' "But, instead of helping to resolve the conflict, the report added to the existing polarisation and intensified it."

It did this by 'complaining' about lack of data, deficiencies and contradictions in the rehabilitation and environmental agendum. By contrast, the Supreme Court decision of October 18, 2000, only did what it had to do in taking a 'damn-the-torpedoes' approach in order to avoid "more controversy, more delay, more cost and more suffering." The judgement, he says, boldly "challenged those responsible for India's water governance... to get on with their job."

It is the responsibility of the author, in the interest of presenting the true story, to fully unfold the inexcusable actions of the governments involved, which have left some waiting for land for 40 years.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), he says, has a 'risky' strategy wherein the only alternative offered to ousted people is suicide. This is crucial to comprehending his understanding of the affair. He sees the NBA as a "side" in a sub-conflict, almost completely supplanting their central role with the sense that the political forces at work here are much larger than us and cannot be tamed so easily. There are moments when such 'thorny' things as human rights and environmental devastation are discussed and even lamented, but against such a backdrop they fade away into a reinforced quietude.

The result is anything but a full, informed picture of the affair. Had John R Wood emerged with some profound insights one might be able to close the book with a final, dissatisfied sigh and brand the read even slightly worth it. Instead, he tells us things like water will "probably" continue to be political in the future, and a resolution will require compromise and a "determination to be just."

The unfortunate truth is that Wood's book is a recent drop in a vast ocean of literature on the rise, which uses an ostensibly competent voice from a particular angle to misinterpret the Narmada controversy. The international concern of the 1990s has admittedly passed and now the time is rife for the peons of academia to embark upon the inexorable 'historian's era' wherein imperfect analyses will be blasted upon the stone of our collective consciousness for all time to come.

Here, the official story is told and its more sympathetic characters do not proceed past the editing process. This officious kind of literature does much harm to the truth -- and ultimately hides more than it reveals.

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