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With the forcible displacement of Medha Patkar and other satyagrahis of the Narmada Bachao Andolan from the site of the planned jal samarpan, another chapter in the long saga of resistance to the damming of the Narmada seems to have drawn to a close. With the highly publicised ‘Rally for the Valley’ over and many of the protesting notables back home, the public excitement, at least for the interim, is likely to fade away.

For the last decade and a half myriad groups and organizations of potential oustees, social activists, environmentalists, counter-experts and ‘concerned’ citizens have attempted to convert the Narmada into a ‘holy’ site of struggle, almost the touchstone for political correctness. From technical commentary on dam design and height, river flows, submergence zones, displacement, terms of compensation and relief packages, symbolic arguments on sacred sites and the soul of the river, and ethical-philosophical debates on the meaning of development – the Narmada has seen it all. No other project in recent memory has generated as many words and images or so persistently forced itself onto the public gaze.

Despite the struggle having moved over many terrains – national and international – the jury on the project is still out. Worse, while the supporters of the project decry the struggle as anti-development, anti-national, unconcerned about the fate of the drought stricken populace of Gujarat, the protesting activists classify their ‘other’ as criminal and engaging in genocide. ‘Free’ dialogue and debate instead of reducing differences and producing appreciation for the arguments proffered have led to a hardening of positions, increasing intransigence and closure. Shrill claims to truth and public good have squeezed out any middle ground.

This was not always so. In the initial stages when dissent focused on issues of displacement and just rehabilitation, social and environmental cost-benefits, and the democratic right of the affected to be consulted before ‘planned’ interventions to disrupt life and lifestyles, there appeared space for reason. Given, however, the tendency of project authorities to stonewall demands for a fresh review, distort the available but scanty data and deploy coercive tactics, the ‘movement’ too underwent a shifting and hardening of position.

Just how and why the resistance against the project shifted from concern about minimizing negative externalities to ‘no big dam at any cost’ is a long story. In the process, even groups and individuals who questioned the ‘wisdom’ of the project but were unwilling to go along with the NBA’s ‘extreme’ stand were alienated, often vilified as collaborationist. The insensitivity to the water needs of Gujarat, the use of extranational actors and agencies, the rejection of counter-arguments by questioning bona fides lost the Andolan significant goodwill. Worse, it drowned out the many gains resulting from the resistance, in particular that systems of open review and accountability have now become part of the formal due process.

Is this an inevitable part of the life-cycle of a protest movement? Rarely do we realise that while everyone is entitled to speak, not everyone is granted equal privilege to be heard. Our media and formal institutions act as a filter foregrounding the expert over the citizen. The former knows, the latter cannot. The anguish of the victim enjoys little cognitive status in the murky world of realpolitik.

In addition, the NBA has been prone to many political blunders – from falling into the trap of inter-state intrigue, an excessive reliance on middle class interlocutors and the media, and paying insufficient attention to the need for ground level organising. By not building upon the many small gains or campaigning for the suggested alternatives to meet the primary goals of the project, the NBA could more easily be classified as obdurate and woolly-headed. And as media attention became more difficult to command, not surprising given its character, sympathy for the cause declined.

Nevertheless, disregarding the many valuable lessons thrown up by the social movement will be dangerous for our democracy. For far too long major interventions have been promoted in the name of the greater common good without due cognizance for the rights of the marginalized groups and communities. Even if the Sardar Sarovar dam is built, as it well might, the war against destructive development must continue.

Not too long back the citizens of Balliapal, a small area in coastal Orissa, succeeded in stalling their proposed displacement for a national missile testing range. That project enjoyed the highest classification in the rubric of national security. Yet, organized passive resistance for over two years did win out. Balliapal saw no extensive media coverage, no forging of national or international alliances. Just the quiet determination of a people unwilling to be taken for granted. Maybe there is a lesson in that.


Harsh Sethi