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THE relative blackout of the NBA agitation against the hydel dam project at Maheshwar, despite the presence of personalities like Arundhati Roy, seems to mark the end of media fascination with what has been arguably independent India’s most commented upon social-ecological movement. And there are many who will heave a sigh of relief – not just farmer’s groupings led by Sharad Joshi and Mahendra Singh Tikait who, on the previous occasion of the Rally for the Valley had threatened a counter-mobilisation, or the Gujarat government which has continually branded the NBA as anti-Gujarat, but surprisingly even forums like the Dalit Voice whose vituperative writings on the NBA and its best known icon, Medha Patkar, verge on calumny.

Nevertheless, consigning the agitation and all that it has stood for to the dustbins of history (now that we have entered a new millennium) would be a grave error. The current excitement with economic growth at all cost, with its concomitant reliance on electric power and water and scant consideration for the politics and ethics of resource use, represents an ostrich like attitude to the growing conflicts over the use and control of natural resources, including renewable natural resources.

Not too far back, we witnessed a shameful capitulation by the state, both regional and national, over the Cogentrix power project in Karnataka. While commentators, probably correctly, pointed out the anomalies in a fast track project being stalled in our courts for seven years, they conveniently sidestepped the equally legitimate concerns about environmental destruction and displacement. The guarantees conceded to the corporation regarding the rates at which power would be purchased by the state only confirms that our decision makers hold both the people and the fiscal health of the economy in low regard.

The script in such situations is depressingly familiar. As with the Enron Corporation in Maharashtra earlier, or the U.P. State Electricity Board now, the effort is first to demonstrate that there is a severe shortage of power. Rather than work towards reducing transmission leakages or ensure proper power billing and collection of dues, the public entities responsible are permitted to fall sick. A curious silence is maintained over the fact that as much as the corruption in these entities the political announcement of subsidies is equally responsible for the financial mess.

With the stage having been set for generation of additional power capacity, preferably through mega projects, the next round involves legitimising the participation of private capital, both national and foreign. Like the Enron and Cogentrix projects, the dam at Maheshwar too involves substantial private capital. The objection of protesting movements is not to the generation of additional power capacity or the invitation extended to private capital, but the overall process which remains shrouded in secrecy and disregards legitimate questions, most often by branding all protest as anti-development, anti-progress and anti-people.

Projects like the one at Maheshwar are invariably justified in terms of both water (irrigation, drinking water) and power needs of needy populations. In the case of the dams on the Narmada, the imagery of a drought stricken Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh has come very handy. Yet, as has been convincingly demonstrated, micro watershed schemes in both Jhabua and Surendranagar have in a short time managed to substantially alleviate water scarcity for dispersed rural communities, as also regenerated the degraded environment.

Maybe what we need is a slight refocusing of the environmental movements. A positive campaign about what communities can do to the local environment, with minimal financial resources but technical help and organisational cohesion, could substantially erode one plank on which promoters of mega projects seek and generate public sympathy. Similarly, building on the work of the International Energy Initiative in Bangalore on the Karnataka State Electricity Board and the myriad ways in which greater efficiency in power use can be ensured would blow a big hole in the arguments advanced by the lobbies advocating additional power generation.

Equally, there is no running away from strengthening mechanisms for transparency and accountability and demanding that project authorities and the state share all information regarding large development projects. At least then we can initiate efforts aimed at substantive public debate and discussion, to try and ensure that decisions are based on a rational calculus and subserve public good. Otherwise we are likely to witness the authorities continuing in their technocratic and secretive ways and movements, pushed to the wall, increasingly having to rely on ‘personalities’ to ensure a hearing space.

Harsh Sethi