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Silenced rivers

The World Commission on Dams report vindicates much of what dam critics have long argued. If the builders and funders of dams follow the recommendations of the WCD, the era of destructive dams should come to an end... Had the planning process proposed by the WCD been followed in the past, many dams would not have been built.

Patrick McCully, campaigns director of the Berkeley,

California-based International Rivers Network.

THE Government of India claims that the multipurpose Sardar Sarovar Project would irrigate more than 1.8 million hectares (mostly in Gujarat and some in Rajasthan) and solve drinking water problems in drought-prone areas like Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar dam is the largest among the 30 ‘big dams’ planned to be constructed on the Narmada river in central and western India. This dam, with a proposed height of 136.5 meters (455 feet), has emerged in the not-so-recent past as the focal point of the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s concerted opposition and resistance.

The NBA has steadfastly maintained that ‘tall’ claims on the part of the government are exaggerated and untenable. The SSP would instead displace more than 320,000 persons and adversely affect the livelihood of innumerable others. NBA activists have even estimated that a population of at least one million would be dislocated if the SSP were to be completed (as a result of displacements caused by the canal system and other allied projects).

The NBA has been opposing this project for a decade now, and its activists sought to highlight demerits of the SSP during 1990-91 by employing statements of protest like dharnas or sit-ins and satyagraha or nonviolent non-cooperation. The World Bank (that was about to finance the dam to the tune of $450 million) was subsequently ‘compelled’ to set up an independent review committee, the Morse Commission, the first of its kind. The Morse report indicted the World Bank on many counts, and (tacitly) supported the major human ecological concerns raised by the NBA. Adverse international reaction that had followed the Morse report finally decided the World Bank against financing the SSP.

The Supreme Court of India had ‘stayed’ further construction of the dam at a height of 80.3m in 1995 following a writ petition by the NBA demanding a comprehensive review of the SSP. However, in an interim order (February 1999), the Court gave a go-ahead for the dam’s height to be raised to a height of 88m (85m + 3m of ‘humps’). It was pointed out that this could lead to floods during the monsoon season, and well displace 2000 tribal households in about 50 villages. The Supreme Court finally delivered its judgement on the SSP on 18 October 2000, permitting immediate construction of the dam upto a height of 90m (in a 2 to 1 majority judgement). The judgement further authorized construction upto the originally planned height of 138m in 5m increments, subject to approval by the Relief and Rehabilitation Subgroup of the Narmada Control Authority.

It may be pointed out here that the Supreme Court’s judgement has not fundamentally altered the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award which had earlier decided that land should be made available to the dispossessed at least a year in advance before submergence [Clause IX, Subclauses IV(2)(iv) and IV(6)(i)]. The Supreme Court’s clearance of the SSP, moreover, has not been able to resolve critical issues involved like cost-benefit analyses of development and displacement, rehabilitation and social justice, grassroots (dis)empowerment, environmental and human ecological problems, and so on.

We intend to study the NBA as an important social movement in present-day India and argue that big river dams are informed by a certain definition of development that is intellectually hegemonized by the compulsions of globalization. Such a definition not only reorients one’s notion(s) of sustainable development but also one’s worldview. This is, therefore, a politics of knowledge subversion that ought to be first challenged and next resisted by alternative vision(s) of public action and development underpinned by civil societal initiatives in the context of unequal exchange and an as-yet-unjust North-South dialogue.

We also argue that the very logic of globalization cannot be always reconciled with the institutions and imperatives of democratic politics. However, globalization can, and actually does, facilitate a certain kind of development that is more often than not biased in favour of the North rather than the South. Globalization, therefore, entails a ‘paradox’ of sorts: its dynamics require an enabling exercise of good governance while the structural adjustment programmes that it entails may well erode the popular bases of government. We would also try to identify and highlight certain angularities of the movement, and develop a few insights (in this process) that are perhaps beyond the texts of conventional subaltern criticisms and SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analyses. Let us first recount the facts and figures, and subsequently develop and substantiate our argument(s) in the course of this exercise.

Construction of large dams on the Narmada in central and western India, and its disastrous impact on millions of people inhabiting this river valley have emerged as one of the most controversial socio-ecological issues in contemporary India. NGOs and other activist groups like Friends of the Narmada Valley, through dedicated websites, now communicate ‘other’/grassroots viewpoints to the global community in order to generate debates whether the SSP (and such similar projects) should at all be allowed to continue or not in the larger interests of human ecology and sustainable development.

The Indian state, however, has never really been able to reciprocate any similar grassroots-level dialogue, and has even treated the SSP as an exercise in pragmatrix that would focus on cost-benefit analyses in terms of an ‘authoritative’ definition of development. The state’s intransigent attitude is yet to be entirely overhauled despite the President of India’s (implicit) criticism of his own government on 6 December 2000 during presentation of the Ambedkar International Award for Social Change to environmental activist Baba Amte.

We ought to realize that indigenous ways of tackling problems are occasionally better suited for sustainable development rather than solutions imposed from above by what we generally prefer to address as ‘rational’ modernity. While we are not convinced with the treatment of present-day narratives as a collection of so-called grand narratives, we are also not always in consonance with the politics-from-below point of view that tends to examine contemporary social activism and public action as an ‘absolute’ discourse in terms of black and white.

We cannot, therefore, afford to discuss our categories of analysis in straitjacketed terms like subaltern or Žlite. We are not quite comfortable with such categories and would rather interrogate these in order to explore other in-between areas of our study. This is why we do not want to examine the marginalized subaltern as someone who is bereft of any further ‘paraphernalia’ of identity. There are intra-subaltern strifes and tensions, problems of sustaining a workable stock of social capital within the subaltern ranks and file. Moreover, can we at all afford to look at the subaltern as a class or should we rather focus on a neoinstitutional (actor-oriented) argument that has to be located within the framework of postcolonial India’s politics of state repression and displacement?

Battles of everyday life are sometimes best resolved with the help of organic resources. But subaltern actors are often without the permission to narrate and are, as a result, almost inevitably relegated to the margins of an Žlitist grand narrative that is empowered by ‘superior’ (?) knowledge of the material conditions of existence. NBA activist Shripad Dharmadhikary has itemized the movement’s alternative agenda accordingly so that civil societal engagements can effectively resist implementation of the state’s developmentalist agenda:

* The NBA would try to involve all aspects of the civil society;

* The NBA envisions the issue (in hand) as much larger than fight(s) over a specific project... the NBA is a coalition that challenges development philosophy, supports ‘right to life’, and challenges power/energy policy;

* The coalition works to mobilize locally affected people;

* The coalition demands local rights to fisheries;

* The NBA would take steps toward decommissioning/removal of dams;

* The coalition advocates re-operation/partial decommissioning to free land for people who have not been resettled;

* Dam decommissioning is the next logical step as part of a spectrum from re-operation to decommissioning;

* Experiences with decommissioning would help change mindsets;

* It is important to share information and debate issues.

So when do people at the grassroots finally begin to identify themselves with their own institutions? This can only happen when they are compelled to deidentify themselves with the state’s agencies (of coercion) that have so far been mai baap to them. Popular institutions serve as indices to assess the ‘quality’ of grassroots activism. Such institutions, moreover, have a proclivity to become somewhat indispensable as their networks expand and become increasingly detailed in terms of organization; their levels of encompassment and embeddedness in the everyday politics at the grassroots rise accordingly.

The role of social trust and networks of cooperation in the context of such ‘decentralized’ governance is rather vital. As Confucius had once remarked, trust is ‘the’ single most important factor in the political lives of men. Trust leads to social bonds and intra- as well as inter-institutional connectedness; this actually coheres institutions.

Trust indicates a system of values; a system of values implies social mores; and social mores are themselves an important institution. So trust can, and often does, lead to the sustenance of institutions. Neoinstitutionalism as a dominant frame of reference in present-day political sociology serves to explain the reality of governance or even the lack of it; it introduces a ‘fresh’ way of looking at and handling institutions.

For what are institutions but formal agencies and domains of human interaction? And is not the problem of governance really a problem of interaction in its primary sense, a problem of interface involving both the state and civil society/societies? If rules are the accepted (and expected modes) of behaviour, then institutions are the facilitating channels that help socialize such behaviour. Theorists like Douglas C. North, Robert D. Putnam and Subrata K. Mitra have developed this neoinstitutionalist paradigm.

Neoinstitutionalism, to understand the ‘baffling’ phenomenon of good governance, deals with actors and institutions as well as actors in institutions. Governance derives from an able handling of institutions. Actors who function through institutions tend to make a lot of difference as to how such institutions perform.

The kind of legitimacy and politics of ecology that we have in mind here would ideally emerge from real life, indigenous knowledge and intimate cultural paradigms of everyday life. We cannot deny the fact that institutions are necessary. But what are ‘social’ institutions other than interactive arrangements of power that are best evolved indigenously? They are actually a collective mode of behaviour, a matrix that sustains popular action and imagination, an integrating dynamic, and a procedural and regulatory imperative within a political system.

But this is not encouraged so far as environmentalist values of the establishment in India are concerned. We have to also remind ourselves that democratic political systems are required to grapple with adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latent pattern maintenance. Mitra has cautioned that ‘if the wielders of power concede the point to those who challenge established values and norms, they risk losing their legitimacy. On the other hand, the failure to give satisfaction to the discontented might deepen their sense of outrage and alienation which can further reduce their legitimacy.’

Our neoinstitutional argument is also supported by rational choice analysis that suggests that any democratic regime would ‘legitimately’ prefer entrenchment(s) of its own power and authority rather than problems of governance; this, however, prompts an essential cost-benefit analysis, namely what amount of political investment to establish pro-people, responsive institutions at the grassroots would yield good governance?

The above is a critical analysis. A democratic regime like India’s can be politically successful and thereby continue in power if it is able to properly ‘read’ its ‘ground’ realities and problems thereof. These problems are more or less popular in nature, and have a propensity to develop into ‘discontent’ of the ruled actors against their ruling institutions. So the actors in power have to redress these grievances of the actors at the grassroots in a political manner by effectively establishing and handling pro-people institutions. Only then would organic identification bind actors with institutions; only then would the incipient involvement noticed at the level of ‘actors and institutions’, arguably, transcend itself to the level of ‘actors in institutions’, consolidating both the level and the quality of environmental/ecological governance in the process.

Prasenjit Maiti

* I am grateful to Susanne Wong of the International Rivers Network and Subramanya Sastry of the Baroda, Gujarat-based Narmada Bachao Andolan among other activists and academics for their kind cooperation that has considerably facilitated my research.