CURRENT COMMENTS - "India's Greatest Planned Environmental Disaster"

Damming the Narmada: A Book Review

Much has been said on both sides of the issue regarding the Narmada Valley Project (NVP). Much more is likely to be said. Certain silences will be broken. Others will be forced into place. Meanwhile, the fate of nearly a million people will remain suspended in mid-air while words swirl all around.

But words need to be pronounced. And this is not the first time Claude Afvarcs has taken up cudgels on behalf of the to-be-displaced, largely poor and tribal populace in the three states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Alvares' latest effort in this respect, "Damming the Narmada: India's greatest planned Environmental Disaster" (co-authored by Ramesh BDlorey) is nothing short of a plea to halt the NVP. In the debates surrounding the NVP the human tragedy has been underplayed, explained away and even presented as a necessary sacrifice towards the larger developmental effort It is to Alvares' credit that he, time and again, emphasizes the human element, not losing sight of the larger environmental context meanwhile.

Alvares’ and Billorey's book comprises of three parts. Part I provides the background to the NVP, its impact on human fife and the environment, a cost-benefit analysis and an argument for alternatives to the NVP. Part 0 consists of two fairly lengthy interviews - with S.C Vanna (former) Oiairman of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) and with Dr.&P. FamV Economic Evaluation Officer, NVDA. There are thirteen appendices coming at the end (Part HI). Here we have various documents relating to the NVP, produced by both Government officials actually working on the project and critics from outside, a few broad theoretical papers on the political economy of large scale irrigation, and newspaper copings. An interesting item in this section is an extract from a writ petition against Sardar Sarovar Dam filed before the Bombay High Court in 1987 by a tribal villager.

Alvares states, at the very outset, that decisions on major projects such as the NVP "are
hardly ever taken on the basis of scientific data or after considering their impact on human or natural environments’. (p.10) In the specific of the NVP, m spite of tough opposition, some of k c«ning from within Government circles, the Development of Environment and Forests in this case, the Central Government approved the project. There had always been a clamor for the project from the powerful landed elites of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, (both Congress ruled states) point out Alvares and Billorey and the decision to go ahead with the NVP came when it did "because of the resounding defeat the Congress suffered in a few other states in early 1967 than to any cost-benefit ratio the officials in charge could cook up in favor of the dam" (p.10)

It is within this framework of Indian polity that Alvares and Billorey place their arguments: A state that somehow refuses to Incorporate any of the experiences post-independence India has of large dams, and their acknowledged devastating impact on their immediate environment and the hardship caused to the large populations displaced by their reservoirs"(p.l3). This on the one hand. On the other hand, nearly a 100,000 people, most of them tribal’s, already underprivileged, who stand to lose their traditional rights to forest lands, and face the prospects of dispersal, dispossession and loss of livelihood, identity and their very lives. Not to mention the nearly fourty thousand hectares of forest to be submerged, hundreds of animal species lost and precious medicinal plants destroyed. As one of the reports in the appendices note,with regard to the people in the Narmada Valley/either the masses will win a major battle in the so-called development effort or will be totally destroyed... There will be nothing in between" (Appendix. I, p22, Medha Patkar).

This all-or-nothing situation emerges as a drastic one indeed. Alvares and Billorey detail the human tragedy vividly. They place the number of oustees - displaced persons - at 400,000 by the time the dams are completed (note to Table 2, p.16). Of these nearly 47% of them would be tribal’s. Apart from these preposterous numbers what is even more appalling are the totally vacuous plans for their re-settlement. The Government of India, having violated international law that guarantees the rights of tribal peoples to their traditional land, has gone ahead with a project of "re-settlement” calculated in sheer economic terms. On this basis, human suffering has been determined to cost Rs. 20 crores (while nearly Rs. 33 crores are being spent on staff quarters for the Sardar Sarovar Site). Besides there is no land available for "re-settlement". Cash compensation does not help since land that is acquired by the Government is valued less and when the oustees attempt to buy new land the prices are, of course, inflated. Land-for-land has proven unworkable and S.CVarma, Chairman, NVDA had already admitted to the fact. (In fact Varma seems to have realised the tangles his Government has got into over the issue of re-settlement. In this sense Part II that contains the interview with him is interesting. Alvares and Billorey note that Varma admits to the problem of landless laborers being left to their own fortunes. Varma is also aware, as the authors are quick to point out, that land ceiling laws hardly operate in Madhya Pradesh). How has it been possible for the Government to get away with this? The tribals are seen as sacrificial victims, no doubt. They perhaps are not part of the 'nation’ in whose name development is being managed. However, Alvares and Billorey seem determined that the people be heard and that they represent themselves. Hence, Appendix 13, Shclya Dohrya's writ petition against Sardar Sarovar Dam. Dohrya's objections to Sardar Sarovar constitute the other side of the argument.

The appendices, it must be said at tins point, let the facts speak for themselves. Alvares and BiHorey pitch their arguments largely at a functional level, provide information, data and roand them off with a few pithy comments on our developmental efforts. It is the appendices that lead weight and credibility to their judgments. Especially so, since Appendix 3 and Appendix 4 is reports from the Department of Emir onmcnt and Forestry and Department of Forests, Madhya Pradesh respectively. They constitute criticism from within and such criticism underscores Alvares' initial observation on the reckless Indian Government Part II is also interesting for the same reason. One can see the arguments for the NVP tailing apart as we read through the responses of S.C. Varma and his colleagues to Billorey’s searching questions. Most of the time the arguments are circular (see especially how Varma attempts to defend the absence of environmental data, on wildlife and plant species, pp. 67-68) and hardly constitute explanations. Similarly with Dr. Pant's responses: Here the arguments are not so much circular but they reveal a certain resignation. Questioned closely on cost-benefit ratios that seem to have a mysterious life of their own, Dr. Pant admits "this thing is beyond comprehension'' (p.98)

An appalling state of unpreparedness comes through time and again. Alvares and Billorey note that no adequate "re-settlement" forests for animals have been planned. The area affected by the NVP being already overgrazed and degraded, it cannot support wildlife or plant life. Besides there are no forest corridors to enable animals to pass into other forests. They have to traverse agricultural land and crops will, without doubt, be destroyed. Since no data has been gathered on the state of wildlife, one has very little idea of protected species or of anything else. Past experience, with dam building as Billorey notes in his interview (p.67) has not been kind to animal life. But the NVDA authorities can only say one cannot go by the past since no systematic study of it exists and anyway "let us not compare things (p.67). It is clear that the presumed attack on wild life and the catchment area is to be on a gigantic scale. In terms of destruction, it is bound to seem not only callous but criminal.

Equally criminal is the environmental impact. The NVP consists of Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar and various other reservoirs all across Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The total agricultural land to be submerged amounts to nearly 56,000 hectares. Total forest area to be submerged is 40,000 hectares. In return, these projects are to irrigate 123,000 hectares of land and generate 223 MW of electricity (which in a later phase will drop to 118 MW) in the case of Narmada Sagar and 300 MW in the case of Sardar Sarovar (which will drop to 150 MW). Alvares and Billorey remark that the value of agricultural land thus lost is incalculable for its value is "not just the market value of the crops produced. The value of the top soil... the value of organisms living in the soil, the socio-psychological significance of ancestral lands is being ignored" (p-34). Also, big reservoirs have always increased the siltation rate. The NVDA has not really considered the question of catchment area treatment for siltation. In fact, the Department of Environment and Forests has admitted that while an "Intention" plea to this end exists, it cannot be an "action" plea until more data is available. Meanwhile, while data is being gathered, deforestation will proceed at an accelerated pace. This circular logic of procedures serves the NVDA well; Alvares and Billorey note that engineers are already saying Svhere is the money for it?' "Clearly, after getting the clearance their only concern is to erect the wall across the river, nothing more"(p.40). Thus it is with water logging and salinity - two consequence of dam building. Alvares and Billorey comment on how the rich alluvial plains of Punjab and Haryana suffer from desertification through water logging and Stalinization induced by excessive irrigation water (p.41).When Ramesh Biflorey mentioned this to S.C. Varma during their interview (pp.69-70), he was told that Madhya Pradesh is not the Punjab and precautionary measures have been taken. Billorey mentioned the IIS reports that conclude at least one lakh hectares will be affected by water logging. He also pointed out that the Department of Agriculture's soil survey report had recorded that black soil (most liable to water logging) makes up nearly 30% to 40% of the command area of the Narmada. S.C. Varma's response was "of course, of course, who can say that, unless you are careful, you will ruin everything'' (Pgr69). Amen to that!

It becomes clear as we follow Alvares and Billorey in their arguments that the NVP has acquired mythic proportions in the minds of its planners. This is especially evident in the shifting cost-benefit ratio that the NVDA has come up with on various occasions. The cost-benefit ratio that is considered agreeable is 1:1.5. The authorities concerned have played around with this three times, forced to account for losses shown by the Department of Environment and Forests. They have attempted to underplay catchment area treatment costs, the costs of human re-settlement and the actual cost of reforestation. While anti-dam activists have hinted at indirect costs, the cost-benefit ratio changed accordingly to show built-in benefits such as those acquired by choosing hydel power over thermal .power! It is significant that Dr. Pant, Economic Evaluation Officer finds this dubious. Billore/s interview with him is a very important part of the book. Dr. Pant is clear in his statements and does not evade issues and the impasse he is confronted with when shown mysteriously changing cost-benefit ratios is noteworthy.

In the context of all this, it is a little surprising that Alvares and Billorey's chapter on alternatives to the NVP discusses chiefly what can be done with the NVP - reducing the height of dams, using lift irrigation etc. Only towards the end do they refer to small scale reservoirs. (Nirmal Sen Gupta makes out an eloquent case for these in Appendix 11.) Already, by the time one reaches the end of Part I one's head feels fuzzy with all those astronomical figures clearly beyond one's rational comprehension. This rather tame conclusion further relegates the people the subjects of this text to the margins of discourse about development.

Though we are told, time and again, an entire way of life is lost, that tribal culture will disintegrate, it would have been appropriate if we were told, in the main narrative itself just what is being lost. We need a conceptual framework to aid us comprehend issues of displacement and loss of home in terms of certain historical choices that were made in the name of modernization and development. The scenario of big dams is not an isolated instance of our general loss of functional ability and creativity as a nation. It has come about as a result of a philosophy of progress that has taken very little of our past into account - both the legacies of colonialism and our pre-colonial past. This philosophy of progress has, moreover, been rationalized in the name of the people of India and the Indian nation. But it is a moot question whether the people have figured in the calculations of our planners other than as statistical units.

The appendices raise certain pertinent theoretical questions to an extent that is Venish inker Vasu's piece on pre-British Gujarat (Appendix 9) reconstructs a bit of Gujarat's pre-colonial past in the context of the disaster for the present and future planned by NVDA and, thereby, invokes alternatives. Shelya Dohrya's writ petition speaks powerfully for tie way of life that is being threatened by the NVP; Dohrya pleads for the Narmada river to be let alone, a river that has been a "witness to and a part of all our social and cultural practices"(p.l94). Dohrya's claims over the traditional rights he and his people have enjoyed for generations are made in the face of the encroaching culture of modern societies "cut off from natural beauty... and recreating themselves through costly week-end town and village-type restaurants on the highways".

Dohrya's petition also begs the fundamental question that Alvares and Billorey do not quite ask: Whose needs are defined by the "power" and "water" to be acquired from the NVP?.

Ahares and Billorey should, however, be given their due. Their book is more a timely political intervention than a sustained historical critique of our development policy options. And, as such, its significance cannot be doubted.

What we ought to do, perhaps, in the long view of history, is to relate instances of planning such as the NVP to other such instances, as for example our nuclear energy options and demonstrate the serious lacunae in centralized planning and regulation. This would, of course, lead us into making larger political observations. Ultimately we have to raise questions regarding "modernization" "progress" etc and deconstruct the mystique they hold for the "21st Century planners and developers". Only then will recent Indian history emerge as a history of struggle and subordination than one glorious movement towards progress and prosperity.


On 21st September 1988, a memorandum signed by a number of distinguished men and women was handed over to the office of the Prime Minister. In an accompanying letter to the Prime Minister, Baba Amte, who had sponsored this signature campaign, described the memorandum as an "expression of a truery national collective will by a large number of people and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in their own fields of activity. They are the voice of the nation". He urged the Prime Minister "to pay the most careful heed to the questions they have raised, and the suggestions they have offered". Among those who signed the memorandum are Dr. Malcolm Adiseshaiah, Smt. Aruna Asaf Ali, Sri. Sunderlal Bahuguna, Smt. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Sri. Satish Dhawan, Sri. M.S. Gore, Prof. Irfan Habib, Sri. P.N. Haksar, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Sri. Achyut Patwardhan, Smt. Mrinalini Sarabhai, Dr. Obaid Siddiqui, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan etc

This memorandum points out that the country would have to pay enormous financial, social, cultural and environmental costs for executing the Narmada Valley Project and that the benefits supposed to arise from the projects have been greatly exaggerated. The memorandum questions the wisdom of spending a vast magnitude of our scarce national resources on the project and proposes a thorough reappraisal of its potential costs and benefits and to examine possible alternatives. Some alternatives have also been suggested. The memorandum ends with an appeal to the Central Government and the State Governments of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to stop all further work on the NVP.

This memorandum has received wide publicity in the national press, particularly in the English and Hindi newspapers. This set off a violent backlash from the advocates of the project, particularly from politicians of all hues in Gujarat. Declaring themselves ready to take "every step" to prevent Baba Amte from entering Gujarat (if he came with a "Narmada Roko" campaign), leaders of Gujarat's major opposition parties vied with each other in proclaiming their "total commitment" to ensuring that the Narmada Valley Project is completed. The Government of Gujarat asked one of the signatories of the memorandum, Smt Mrinalini Sarabhai, to resign from her position as the Chair Person of the Gujarat State Handicraft and Handloom Development Corporation. The critics of NVP were dubbed as "the enemies of Gujarat". The Chief Minister of Gujarat accused the environmentalists and other opponents of the NVP, of attempting to keep tribal people in a "backward state" in the name of preserving their culture. Some Congress leaders went to the extent of calling the NVP critics as part of an imperialist conspiracy plotting to keep India "backward", totally forgetting that the Indian Government had been more than anxious to secure World Bank's financial assistance for the project.

Succumbing to the pressure from various quarters in Gujarat, one of the signatories, Sri. G. Mavlankar withdrew his support to the memorandum. He said he was withdrawing his endorsement "as it has evoked intense, widespread and genuine reaction throughout Gujarat".

In its turn, Government of India reiterated its decision to go ahead with the NVP.
Functionaries of the Gujarat Government and' the Government of India charged the "environmentalists" with "spreading disinformation" about the NVP and sought to correct the impression created by the NVP critics. The Planning Commission has already accorded investment clearance to the Sardar Sarovar Project (Rs. 6,406crores) in Gujarat. The Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission has stated that the clearance had been given subject to the condition that the Gujarat Government would comply with conditions laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. However, at a recent meeting of the Narmada Control Authority, representatives of the Government of India pointed out that both the rehabilitation schemes and the compensatory forestation schemes of the State Governments concerned are totally inadequate. This information was considered so damaging to the NVP cause that it was decided that the minutes of the meeting would not be released to the Press. (Times of India, 15th November 1988). More recently, The World Bank has also cleared the NVP.

Thus, it becomes all the more urgent to confront the decisions and plans of the NVDA on the basis of concerted action. Traditional Indian society managed to preserve the balance between human beings and the environment by intervention through a science and technology that has sometimes been called, "holistic". Even if we grant that the enormous rise in population - which has sometimes been used as a justification for modern gigantic technology - exerts a great pressure on the environment, we have done no work in extending traditional technologies to meet the needs of our population. Mere fascination with giganticism and "sophistication" of a modern kind can hardly offer us any useful solutions. In the absence of any serious examination of traditional technologies as serious alternatives at a national level, every drive towards modernization will only further impoverish our people and destroy our national resources such as the natural wealth. As Baba Amte put it eloquently "we have not merely inherited (the natural wealth) from our forefathers, we have borrowed them from our children". It is time that we seriously re-examine how we can generate a truly Indian response to the challenges of our times like providing irrigation/water/energy to the people of this country, i.e., a response that considers nature as sacred while simultaneously working out technologies to satisfy the basic needs of the entire population.

Author:Geetha Varadharajan

No comments:

Post a Comment