India: Medha's fast for justice vs Govts continued pursuit of doomed-to-fail mega dams Print E-mail
 Tuesday April 11 2006

The poor as sacrificial lambs

Unquiet flows the Narmada

By Punypriya Dasgupta
Big dams projects never really provide the irrigation and power that their project reports promise

Even Meira Kumar, India’s moon-faced junior Minister for water resources, appeared to be wearing a long face like her senior, Saifudin Soz, and another Minister, Prithviraj Chauhan, when they failed to persuade Medha Patkar to give up her indefinite fast outside Jantar Mantar in New Delhi last week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had deputed them and they went oozing as much synthetic sympathy for Ms Patkar and her cause as they possibly could. Their best was not enough.

Near-panicky at the thought of what might follow any untoward outcome from the hunger-strike by Medha Patkar and two of her co-activists, the government called in the police. They did their bit in their customary ham-handed way, seizing Patkar in a midnight swoop on the makeshift Narmada Bachao Andolan camp and depositing her at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences.

This was an arrest but the police tried to deny it. Nor would they admit that they were acting under orders. There was some comic relief too. Three others from the NBA crowd were also picked up by the police along with Patkar and the doctors discovered that two of them were not on hunger-strike only when they pointed to the needlessness of drips that were readied as forced sustenance for them.

The police were clearly reckoning with only the big name of Medha Patkar and were unconcerned about exactly who else were fasting unto death. They shifted Jamsingh Nargave, one of the three hunger-strikers, to hospital by chance. They left the fasting Bhagwati Behn behind at Jantar Mantar. She is still there at this writing.

Narmada Bachao Andolan is today an old story of thousands and thousands of men and women, rendered homeless, landless, incomeless by the Narmada dams and canals, desperately seeking ways to rebuild their hand-to-mouth lives. They have, over many years, petitioned various authorities, met Ministers, organised themselves in their NBA, marched in villages and cities, fought battles in courts. faced police brutalities, courted arrest and detention, undertaken protest fasts, threatened suicide by drowning, countered calumniation of their leadership – in sum, refused to be forgotten.

When Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation of the Narmada river valley development project 45 years ago, the maximum height of a dam was fixed at 163 ft., with the assumption that the rehabilitation of those displaced would of course be taken full care of and well in time. As years have passed and the politicians and the high dam lobby grown ambitious and avaricious, the scope of the project has been enlarged manifold: to some 3000 dams -- with 135 medium and 30 major ones -- on the Narmada and its tributaries, and the maximum height rising, as the target stands today, to 455 ft.

Kalidasa’s Reva
When all that is achieved, the Narmada will cease to be the same river as Kalidasa’s Reva (as it was known in antiquity), which until yesterday was much as the great classical poet described it to his cloud-messenger (Meghadutam): flowing impeded by rose-apple brakes and spreading dishevelled at the Vindhyas’ uneven rocky foothills. The mighty river will be transformed into a series of lakes. In 1959 I did a survey of the reasons for the extensive floods in Bengal and Orissa. Even then despite euphoria over construction of huge multipurpose dams like the Bhakra and Damodar Valley, I found that the floods were aggravated by the discharge of impounded waters of the DVC lakes to save the dams.

A frustrated river research expert told me that the dams were built on the basis of insufficient data and later people may demand dismantling those massive walls. The Hirakud dam was expected to protect a large part of Orissa from floods but its prowess has time and again proved insufficient.

Also the benefits from big river projects – irrigation and power – have often eventually been substantially below the claims in project reports. A controversy rages over the worth of big dams. Figures advanced by promoters are found fudged and facts faked.

The cost-benefit questions are hardly ever satisfactorily answered. Suggestions of modest but more effective ways to development are brushed aside as romantic ideas of the small as always beautiful in favour of large-scale development. In the Narmada valley too, construction of dams has proceeded apace in spite of the Morse Commission’s criticism, World Bank’s withdrawal and the Medha Patkar-led Bachao Andolan. Only the “last mile” is to be covered, as the cheer leaders are crowing.

A controversial, openly pro-dam majority judgment of the Supreme Court of India some years ago strengthened the process. The issue is now reduced to rehabilitation of the ousted.

Some 15 lakh people, mostly adivasis and inhabitants of poor villages in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat are watching their homes being washed away by Narmada waters to benefit mainly the better off in Gujarat.

The promise of pari passu (side by side) rehabilitation has been forgotten.

The Prime Minister wants Medha to give up her fast but, for his part, he is finding it difficult to accept her incredibly modest demand that an official report on the Narmada Valley rehabilitation be made public.