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WITH Medha Patkar, the indefatigable face of the three decade old struggle seeking justice and rehabilitation for the thousands forcibly displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, calling off her latest round of protest after the Supreme Court refused to impose a stay on the release of river waters, are we witnessing the end of what many have described as the finest post-Emergency example of a nonviolent struggle against the policies of destructive development? Unlike the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when every twist and turn in this ‘epic’ struggle was avidly followed, and discussed, this time around details of the protest have been buried in the inner pages of newspapers. And while Medha and her colleagues remain as committed as ever to the cause, it would be ostrich-like to not recognize that the hearing space for their concerns has sharply shrunk.

It is not that planners the world over are ignorant about the ‘negatives’ of mega-developmental interventions – economic, social environmental – as landscapes and lives are sought to be remade in the pursuit of a ‘greater good’. When decisions were being finalized about the dams on the Narmada, we already had sufficient experience of our earlier efforts – Damodar Valley, Bhakra Nangal, Hirakud. And yet, the tortuous and complex discussions over the specifics of the project, involving experts and politicians from both the Union and concerned state governments, chose to downplay the concerns of those who would have to pay the price for the nation’s progress. Clearly, the expected benefits – expansion in irrigation capacity, flood control, increased generation of hydropower – in the calculation of those who matter, trumped any anticipated downside.

It is this fundamentally undemocratic and unethical process of decision-making, one which treats the lives, livelihoods and concerns of the affected, often among the most vulnerable of our people, as dispensable, that the Narmada Bachao Andolan chose to resist. And for a brief phase, it appeared that their labours were having an impact. Under pressure from groups of affected citizens, social activists, concerned experts and the media, both within the country and elsewhere, the terms of the project were recast, now incorporating far more generous terms of relief and rehabilitation, more rigorous environmental and social impact studies, institutional arrangements to involve representatives of affected peoples in the specifics of the project, and so on.

Unfortunately, most of these hard fought for gains proved illusory. Whatever the official rhetoric deployed for convincing the judiciary, the donors, or the public, it needs to be admitted that any unbiased rendering of the Narmada story will be as much the story of broken promises, of apathy and unconcern across political regimes. Of course, there are gainers – those who got access to enhanced irrigation and drinking water, or the additional generation of hydropower. But nowhere near what was promised and at much higher cost – both financial, human and environmental.

The most devastating outcome of the Narmada saga is, however, political. Read another way, the handling of the Narmada protests has helped our political masters sharpen their strategies of dissimulation, propaganda and tiring out citizen opposition through a cruel mix of cooptation and coercion. In many ways, Narmada helped design a new template of containment – painting all critics as anti-development, if not anti-national. Just recollect every appellation hurled at Medha Patkar and her associates or for that matter at writers like Arundhati Roy who deployed the power of her pen to foreground the unfolding tragedy in the valley.

It is often inadequately realized that by sharply curtailing avenues of nonviolent protest – dharnas, hunger fasts, marches, petitions, court battles, media representations – and by insisting on one grand version of the truth – official – our system has become far more fragile and vulnerable. Three decades back, the villagers of Balliapal in Orissa were able to resist the proposal to build a national missile testing range on their lands through peaceful self-organization, despite the project having been cleared by all technical committees and seen across the party spectrum as crucial for national security. Nor were there any murmurs of malfeasance. Just contrast the Balliapal struggle with that of the anti-nuclear protest in Kudankulam where today hundreds of activists stand accused of sedition.

It is unlikely that Medha and her associates will give up. Despite the many reverses, some a result of their tactical misreading, and the clear hardening of official positions, unfortunately dangerously amplified by the media, they seem ready for the long haul. The greater fear is that others, equally driven to the wall, may not be as patient or idealistically Gandhian. One only hopes that despite the dark portends, our social activists will continue to favour a Narmada over a Bastar. If not, we may be looking ahead to a phase of greater, and more violent, conflict.

Harsh Sethi