THIS MONTH'S THEME
On 18 October 2000 the Supreme Court of India handed down an historic judgement. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada movement – NBA) had petitioned the Court to halt the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River. By a majority of two to one the judges decided that the dam should go up from its existing 88 metres towards the full final height of 139 metres. On the evening television news the leader of the NBA – Medha Patkar – was seen by the nation to be in tears.
Her anguish was understandable. Since entering the petition in 1994, the Andolan had presented a mountain of evidence that the project had flouted its conditions of construction and was unlikely to fulfil its promises to take water to thousands of parched villages in Gujarat. Only one judge had treated the NBA’s evidence with respect. Because of the decision, the lands and forests that support the lives of 200,000 people will be submerged. To date, the ‘rehabilitation’ they are entitled to is, for many, a sham. Thousands of others who don’t face actual submergence also face destitution, but there is no rehabilitation at all for them.
I am in a restaurant in Mumbai having lunch with a group of activists and journalists who have long supported the Narmada movement and its dharnas – struggles. They were gathered here by Medha Patkar by phone the night before. In Medha’s hands the phone is an instrument of dharna – there are hundreds of numbers in her head, and under her relentless dialling India awakes. At this moment she is trying to meet the Chief Minister to discuss the fate of people displaced by large projects. Later she will be arrested for marching at their head. She is a truly extraordinary person.
Sixteen years ago Medha started walking from village to village in the area to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam, and a people’s movement took off. In the late 1980s it became an international cause célèbre, campaigning for the World Bank to cancel its $450 million loan to the project. In 1993, the Bank withdrew – an unprecedented event, helped by international pressure and a damning review from a high-level independent team.1 But the state filled the gap. The dam went on rising. So did the struggle in the Valley. In 1999, the Booker Prize-winning author, Arundhati Roy, gave a new burst of international publicity to the Narmada cause in a widely published essay, The Greater Common Good.2 She fights on for Narmada with her pen and her celebrity presence.
I met Medha Patkar at an international meeting. I had been hired by someone to write about large dams and I thought I should go and look at one. An artist friend, Lucy Willis, wanted to come too. Medha welcomed us. We were innocents. I never realized what we would find.
I ask my Mumbai lunch companions where I should start. The Narmada story winds through the political, economic and cultural fabric of three Indian states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) and up into the international stratosphere to the battle-lines against globalization. Its themes, sagas, betrayals, plots and sub-plots are tortuous. How can I make sense of all this in the short pages of a magazine, for people who couldn’t find the river on a map, and usually pronounce it like Armada instead of Narrma-Da.
Dilip D’Souza, a journalist, is emphatic. ‘You must start with the Supreme Court judgement’. ‘But,’ I protest, ‘the judgement is the climax, the denouement, the nadir – it will be like starting at the end.’ ‘No,’ the others agree. ‘Start with the judgement. The judgement is of immense significance.’ So I have.
The judgement is not just a verdict on this large dam. It is a verdict on whether the state is willing to question its iron-clad commitment to a form of grand-slam development which wreaks massive human and environmental damage for dubious economic gain. Not only Gandhi’s inheritors, but other hard-nosed analysts are asking why – after 50 years of it – are India’s water problems getting worse, its small farmers driven to the wall, its poverty more acute? Millions of Indians have had their livelihoods obliterated by bulldozers and concrete massifs. They have been pauperized, and for what?
Since they are mainly farmers, labourers, dalits (untouchables) or adivasis (indigenous people), their capacity to make themselves heard is limited. Their sacrifice to ‘the greater common good’ has been taken for granted by a middle-class India spoon-fed on development as engineering triumph. Much of the ‘good’ from these projects ends up in the pockets of politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. The damage they inflict on people is seen by a growing minority as unjustifiable. The people themselves are increasingly refusing to accept it.
Thus the Andolan had asked the Supreme Court, acting for the state, to re-consider its commitment to a development model which cripples the poor to line the pockets of vested interests, and the Court refused. The Court said a number of contradictory things.3 It said that it was none of the Supreme Court’s business to consider these matters. But it also produced a gratuitous eulogy on the virtues of large dams, ignoring all recent Indian evidence to the contrary.
The judgement also suggested – in breach of democratic principle – that it was a good thing for tribal peoples to be uprooted; this would help improve them and bring them into the social mainstream. It said the terms of the award to build the dam are inviolable; then it ignored the many ways that they are being breached. Finally, it dismissed the Andolan’s right to question the state’s decision to build the dam. Having accepted the case six years ago, the Court now said it should not have been brought. This implies that people’s movements may not use the Supreme Court to question the executive arm of government. Given the parlous state of Indian politics, this drastically reduces the chance of democratic redress against official ineptitude or bad faith.
Where this will all lead, nationally and internationally, is up for play. In the new globalized economy, the victims are not just exploited but excluded. They are expendable because they are not needed to create the new wealth. Exclusion is far worse than mere exploitation. If the Supreme Court’s decision on Narmada is a license for the forced exclusion of millions of Indians from the common resource base, then something radical may well be unleashed.
The day after the judgement, Medha Patkar was again interviewed on TV and regretted shedding tears the night before. Why have faith in the country’s supreme judicial instrument to right the wrongs inflicted by the dam? What an error. Why expect solid evidence to influence the ultimate arbiters in a land whose establishment is as inflexible as the concrete it adores? For sentiments like these Medha, Arundhati Roy, and the NBA’s chief advocate, Prashant Bhushan, have since been charged with contempt.
Medha’s tears are something people talk about on my journey to Narmada. Is a woman in the Indian public eye to show only ruthlessness, like Mrs Gandhi, or lose respect? Medha worries about respect because she said publicly she would commit Jal Samarpan – sacrifice by drowning – if the dam rose above 88 metres. It has and she did not.
When you have gone to the extreme of non-violent protest, where else is there to go? Since 1988 the Andolan has tried by every conceivable means to halt the Sardar Sarovar. They have sat-in, fasted, captured dam-sites, occupied government buildings, gone to court, to jail, and faced drowning by the monsoon flood. They have demanded information and they have published facts – about overestimates of water flows, about inflated irrigation expectations, about lack of land for re-settlement, about costs spiralling out of control. In the early 1990s submergence became annually more dreadful. In spite of the World Bank withdrawal, in spite of a government review, in spite of everything, still the dam went up.
The 1994 petition to the Supreme Court was a final throw. Medha Patkar, looking back, says that she did not want to go to the court unless it was really necessary. ‘I always felt it was unwise to go with a case unless – if it fails – the movement is strong enough to take the blow.’ But after ten years, with so much evidence compiled, with wide national and international support, they took the risk. They succeeded in delaying construction. But in the end the case failed. A majority verdict, whatever the minority opinion, is a majority verdict. It was a major blow.
Can the Andolan take the blow, and what will they do now?
Days after the judgement the Chief Minister of Gujarat inaugurated the dam’s construction to 90 metres with firecrackers and celebrations. Was this partly meant to provoke Medha into fulfilling her threat of drowning? It was a real possibility. She weighed it constantly in her mind and all her colleagues knew it. The blow to the Andolan might also have been mortal. She postponed. But perhaps not indefinitely. The theme of Medha’s ultimate dharna and possible death also accompanies my journey.
My lunch companions in Mumbai want me to start out believing that, after all, the judgement may not be a ‘defeat’. The movement, under the leadership of a woman of breathtaking fearlessness and endurance, has shaken the conscience of the nation. Not just once, but repeatedly, over the course of many years. The Supreme Court decision has rebounded to its discredit. Many feel stricken about what it says of India’s democratic institutions. They deplore its cruelty, its ignorance, its bad logic. ‘What can one say except “Cry, the beloved country”’, wrote Ramaswamy Iyer, a former Secretary to the Government of India. A debate has taken off, and in the end, in the land of Gandhiji, surely truth must prevail. Mixed with the gloom is optimism. That is another theme of my journey.
There are some who say that after the verdict the Andolan and Medha Patkar should give up. The Sardar Sarovar will be built and that is that. But this is to ignore that the Andolan is a movement of people whose homes, fields, and forests are to be drowned. The defence of their rights to just compensation and re-settlement is where the movement began. Many of these people are still waiting for their rights to be fulfilled.
This summer many villages will be inundated when the monsoon comes. Are they now to be abandoned? The idea is unthinkable. These people are the heart of the Andolan. This is not Seattle or Quebec, where they can protest and go home tomorrow. They have nowhere else to go.
So that is another theme. It seems as bleak as if I had gone to the heart of darkness. The authorities are behaving with a new impunity and repression – because the Supreme Court has sanctioned whatever they do. There is a mood of free, unfettered state license.
On the Sardar Sarovar the gates have been shut and the water in the reservoir is already near the height it reached after last year’s monsoon. The Gujarat Government is clamouring to raise the dam beyond 90 metres, but approval depends on reports that everything in the rehabilitation and environmental garden is rosy. At least the Supreme Court left that loophole and that is the pressure point where Andolan energies are now focused. There are plenty of dharnas to come.
At this moment the monsoon is beginning. On Narmada’s banks, thousands of villagers are waiting. Medha Patkar is among them. Whether they are arrested, whether they drown, there is going to be massive tragedy. The tragedy of their dispossession and their exclusion.
This is the story of the people I met in the Narmada Valley. It’s my journey but it’s their story. And I salute them all.
1 Sardar Sarovar: Report of the Independent Review, Bradford Morse and Thomas Berger, RFI, Canada, 1992;
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