In September 2011 I was in Kathmandu where people were protesting their evacuation for developing the city. It once again brought home to me what I have seen since 1986 when I first went to the Narmada Valley where the people were threatened with displacement, which became an eventuality finally. Even as I write this there are protesters in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam who are protesting. Forced eviction and displacement is an everyday phenomenon—so everyday that we no longer notice it. And yet those who lose their homes and lands suffer as they did and will continue to do so. The government on its part will promise amendments to the archaic and colonial land acquisition law and the it is over 20 years since we have been hearing that there will be a law on resettlement and rehabilitation…in the mean time people are moved and they disappear into oblivion or join the millions teaming to the urban slums as wage labour. So what I wrote in 2006 remains equally relevant today…except that the voices are even more dimmed than they were then. On June 1, 2012 I have been invited to speak yet once again at a release of book on displacement by Walter Fernandes- and no doubt we will be saying the same things yet once all over again.
When will we ever learn?
17 April, 2006
I began this note on the 18th day of the hunger-strike by Medha and her colleagues of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), Bhagwatibai and Jamsingh Nargave (2006). The Hindu that morning carried an article by Usha Ramanathan, an old comrade-in-arms in the ‘development- without -displacement discourse’. It has been 20 years, but her arguments evoke a sense of déjà vu, as does the reaction from everyone else – the media, the middle class and the political leadership. Perhaps the arguments put forth by Usha have earlier origins; they have to, because many thousands had already been dislodged and thrown out of their homes even before the 1980s.
My engagement with this debate began in the mid-eighties. Medha too had made her entry into the valley around the same time. There were researchers, activists, lawyers, environmentalists and engineers—all engaging with the issue. Dam vs. no dam; big dam vs. small dam; dams without displacement and severe environmental consequences, at the very least. Each one of the arguments put forward called for re-examination of the development model at the ‘cost’ of some. They called for cost benefit analysis of projects, taking into account the huge social costs and adequate and appropriate rehabilitation of those whose displacement is imperative, even after adopting the least displacing alternative.
I remember vividly my first walk over the Vindhyas and the Satpuras in 1986, crossing over from Maharashtra to Gujarat, through many of the villages that today are submerged in the waters of the Sardar Sarovar, the meeting of the Narmada Dharangrasth Samiti in Dhadgaon (as the movement was known in Maharashtra), crossing Narmada for the first time in a scooped up- log dinghy, the old Hapeshwar temple, now under water. I made many more trips to the valley, every time returning with a sense of despondency and fear at what would happen to all the villagers. There seemed to be little or no intent on the part of the government to be just. Clearly there was no land, atleast not enough to rehabilitate the thousands who would lose their all. The demand moved from no dam to a one for adequate and appropriate rehabilitation, land for land chosen after due consultation and infrastructural facilities at the new site. Was it so unreasonable a demand? After all, they were being made to pay a huge price for development.
In “Big Dams Displaced People: Rivers of Sorrow Rivers of Change” (SAGE, 1992), a volume which had taken me four years to put together, the studies on all dams covered right from the Hirakud, one of the first dams to be constructed, Pong, Nagarjuna Sagar and Ukai reflected the same experience. What was happening in Narmada and the Tehri was exactly the same. It was a long history of lack of rehabilitation or ill-planned, badly executed, inadequate and inappropriate rehabilitation. Those who lost all, gained nothing and, were instead pauperized. The waters of the Damodar Valley Project flooded villages of West Bengal every year. My father, a hard core bureaucrat, who had been posted at different times in the flood control department in Assam and in DVC in Bengal would often say, “if you tamper with nature, it has a way of getting back at you. The DVC is an example of that”. But the nation was on a dam building spree; the temples of modern India were coming up one after the other. And there was no stopping it.
For two decades the Narmada Bachao Andolan has drawn young people from across the country – people who saw the movement as one representing the concerns of all those already displaced, and those who would be in the future. Generation after generation of young people moves in to fill up the space of those who work, struggle and move on, so that the peaceful movement can thrive and resist the violence perpetrated. But the construction of dams has gone on at its own pace, relentlessly. Harsud, where in 1989, thousands from all over the country had congregated, calling for a more sustainable developmental model, is now a ghost town, given up to the Narmada Sagar Sagar dam, one of the other monsters on the Narmada. It is almost as if there is a competition –who will survive whom – the peaceful resistance or the violence in the name of development. Matching the resilience of the NBA is the stubborn refusal of the government to give in to their demands. The withdrawal of funding from the World Bank, a major coup, only seemed to make the government more cussed.
During a recent television interview, the young reporter asked me—how did you protest in those days? what was the role of the media? And the Politicians? All I could say was – the same as you see today.
The potential oustees and the activists would sit at the Boat Club or outside the Planning Commission or Shram Shakti Bhavan. They engaged in non-violent protests, just as they do today. As for the attitude of the media, little has changed. It had to be high drama then to make news; it has to be even more ‘sansani’ now. With many more news channels, one would have thought there would be more space for the voices of the people. But then displacement of poor and the marginalized does not make for a ‘sexy’ story, not enough to gather revenue from the advertisers, unless the condition of the activists is allowed to deteriorate, as Medha’s and Bhagwatibai’s has been. Or unless stars lend support. The print media is unfortunately no different. There was international support was there then as it is there now, except that with the internet, communicating across the world has become much easier.
Development related displacement remains a ‘non-middle class’ issue. It does not raise the ire of the middle class or the ‘beautiful people’ enough for them to come on to the streets and march with the affected. Even the other issue-based activists took their time lending their support. That is how we have become – divided by issues, caste, class, region and religion. So divided, that we find it difficult to stand side by side with causes that seem alien to us. I am angry about the injustice meted to Jessica Lal. But I am also angered by the fact that the same people who can see injustice in that case, do not see the injustice being meted out to the Narmada oustees or those from Bhopal sitting across the road! I asked my journalist friends – what makes an issue a middle class issue? Why is it that they are unable to position the Narmada debate as a middle class issue? Is it only the fear that it may be my kid who gets shot in some pub that makes the middle-class wake up? Well in that case, the demolitions in Delhi ought to remind us that our lands and properties may be next on the ‘development path’ of some industry, road, mine or flyover and this model of development can be cruel and demanding. It is time we came out to support those on the streets at Jantar Mantar. Who knows, we too may need support from the rest of India soon too?
Watching reports of the failed talks of the ‘high powered committee’ on the Narmada, followed by the pugnacious speech of the Gujarat Chief Minister, only reminds one of numerous other such meetings over the years. The arguments, the demands, the disappointments- nothing has changed. As before, the political leadership polarised and unyielding, out to gain political mileage with scant regard for the people it represents. As before we await the verdict of the Supreme Court.
Even as I write this, Medha and her friends have moved into the 20th day of the fast. There seems to be very little happening towards finding a solution. Back in the 1980s and even in the early 1990s we still lived in hope. We had hoped that research, movements and campaigns would change perspectives on development, displacement and rehabilitation. More fool us—Medha, Baba Amte, Sundarlal ji, Mahendra Bhai, Ramesh Bhai Desai, Walter Fernandes—and all the others who spent many years in these campaigns or supporting these campaigns with research information or litigation. Today the space for resistance and dissent is shrinking. Non-violent protest leads to violence, and the state supports it. The firing in Kalinga Nagar , Orissa bears testimony, to this as does the arrest and firing on protestors against displacement by the upcoming dockyard in Vishakapatnam.
We all know that there is no stopping the Sardar Sarovar dam and that is perhaps true for all other dams too is appears, even though we must keep fighting. We also know they will never deliver the promised results. However is it so unreasonable to demand proper and fair rehabilitation of the outsees before carrying on with these damn dams?