By M V Kamath
On March 8, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) took a decision to give the go-ahead for raising the dam height from the existing 110.64 metres to 121.92 metres. This set in motion a lot of turbulence and opposition from various quarters, but most importantly from the Narmada Bachao Andolan led by Medha Patkar.
The point is made that several thousand families, especially those of tribal people, will be displaced but will have nowhere to go. Even at the height of 110.64 metres, the construction of the dam has reportedly displaced as many as 11,000 families. Were the dam to be raised still further to 121.92 metres, the calculation is that a total of about 45,000 families—over two lakh people—would be displaced.
The charge is made that even after two decades, it has not been possible to arrange satisfactory rehabilitation for the 11,000 families already displaced. Many knowledgeable people—and not just the Narmada Bachao Andolan—believe that given this track record and the obvious unwillingness of the Madhya Pradesh government to find land for those presently displaced, it is unrealistic to hope that with another 34,000 families displaced by raising the dam height to 121.92 metres, the government would meet their needs on the basis of two hectares per family.
As matters stand, the government of Madhya Pradesh has reportedly made it clear that it cannot find land for the evictees, but would be willing to pay cash to the affected families in contradiction to the norms laid down by the Supreme Court. Clearly, those displaced have an indisputable case. But then how is it to be solved?
Prof. Saifuddin Soz, chairman of the Narmada Control Authority's Review Committee has promised "to ensure that the rehabilitation of the project-affected families is undertaken in letter and spirit and in consonance with orders of the Supreme Court of India on the subject". But while Prof. Soz has assumed full responsibility for ensuring that justice is done, even he, apparently, has not been able to make much progress. Which would explain the extreme step taken by Patkar of undergoing an indefinite fast.
As in the case of construction of almost every dam, the displacement of people, from thousands to lakhs, is an inevitable fact. It has been argued that in a city like Mumbai, thousands of illegally built slum hutments have been demolished displacing a couple of lakhs of people and no voice has been raised in their favour. But that argument is faulty. The case of displaced tribals is wholly different.
The tribals have lived lawfully in land that has been theirs for decades if not centuries. They are not, by any calculation, 'outsiders'. To summarily displace them without giving them alternative living sites is cruelty of the worst kind. These are not urban people, but are true sons of the soil with a culture all their own. To uproot them and let them fend for themselves is cruelty beyond imagination.
In the circumstances, Patkar has a sound case. But that said, one must also look at the other side of the coin, too. There are literally millions of people in states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Gujarat who have very poor availability of water and their needs, too, have to be considered. But then the question arises: can one set of people be punished to help another set of people, whatever be the justification?
Is it right to uproot people, especially tribals who have a clear sense of belonging to the land they occupy, and relocate them in an environment they can justifiably describe as hostile to their well-being? The answer is anybody's guess.
Patkar is right in fighting for their just cause, but is undertaking a fast unto death the right approach? That almost amounts to emotional blackmail. The case of the displaced has gone right up to the Supreme Court and there is no higher court of appeal. And there's the rub. Theoretically one can appeal to the World Court but no court in the world can do much if there is not enough forest land available to rehabilitate tribals accustomed to their own way of life.
So ways have to be found that could, on the one hand, give reasonable satisfaction to the displaced persons while, at the same time, enable the governments concerned to do their duty as best as they can. This is where Patkar comes in. Going on an indefinite hunger strike, or undertaking a fast unto death, is not the best way to tackle an admittedly difficult situation. To paint governments—run by whichever party—as inhuman and uncaring may be good heroics but poor judgement.
In the circumstances Patkar is doing no service either to the cause of the displaced tribals or to enforcing social justice by her behaviour. The point has been made by some experts that a wise move would be to give up the idea of raising the height of the dam by a further eleven metres and use the money saved for small-scale water conservation and collection projects and thereby minimising the discomforts to thousands of affected people. This should not be a matter of governmental pride or ministerial egos.
In a democracy, people—including illiterate and helpless tribals—are supreme. Progress achieved at the cost of people is no progress. The question is frequently asked: why can't tribal people give up their ancient ways of life and join mainstream manpower? In the first place the State has no God-given right to change the lifestyles of any people. In the second place, one cannot change the lifestyles of people overnight. In either case it is a painful imposition of one culture on another, which is only possible in a ruthless communist society.
India is a democracy, a fact that needs to be stressed again and again. Every problem has a solution and compromise is part of any solution. For Patkar to undergo a fast unto death is unwise because it makes compromise hard to arrive at. She has been ill advised. It was all very well for a Mahatma Gandhi to undertake such fasts, but they were different times. And in any event, Patkar is no Mahatma Gandhi. Like strikes, fasts unto death have become out of fashion.
There is a lot of social injustice prevalent in the land and, sadly, there are no quick or easily workable answers. That may not be a satisfying answer to a vexing problem, nor is organised violence such as is being resorted to by Naxalites, a way out. But one thing is clear: problems such as we are confronted with cannot be resolved either by emotional blackmail or by violent upheavals. In the end we must sit across the table and negotiate the best deal possible.