The Supreme Court of India and the Narmada Valley
law follows politics. The decisions made in a Supreme Court are not the
disinterested, enlightened application of universal truths enshrined in a
country's legal code but the congealment of power relations and interests in
Wednesday, October 18, the Indian Supreme Court decided to give a green light to
the government of Gujarat to complete the Sardar Sarovar Dam and decided against
the Narmada Bachao Andolan's (or Save the Narmada Movement's) public interest
judges presented their decision as you might expect: the dam would bring power,
irrigation, drinking water, flood control, development, to millions. Implicit in
their decision was that the costs were justified. India is after all a poor
nation, with a large population. So many lack electricity and drinking water. So
many of India's hungry could be fed with these newly irrigated lands. India is
drought-prone and flood-prone, and so many lives could be saved by the control
these dams would bring.
almost twenty years the people in the Narmada Valley, since 1988 in the Narmada
Bachao Andolan (NBA), have urged a reconsideration. They've been asking about
the costs and who would pay them. They've been asking whether the promised
electricity and drinking water would actually be delivered, whether the dams
could actually control flood and drought. They've been looking at the history of
dams and the interests behind them. In light of what they've learned-- about
costs, benefits, and interests-- the Supreme Court decision is both a huge
disappointment and no great surprise.
a huge disappointment because of the costs. The dam is going to submerge some of
the best agricultural land, in supposedly order to irrigate other land. It is
going to inundate and destroy forests and homes, supposedly in order to bring
water to other homes. How the authorities decide who gets inundated and who
doesn't comes down to who has political power and who doesn't. The vast majority
of people who have been displaced by dams in India have been Adivasis (tribal or
indigenous people) and Dalits (of the lowest caste). The absolute number of
people who have been displaced is unknown-- but it is known to be in the tens of
millions. Dams, like wars, are excellent refugee creators. The Narmada Bachao
Andolan estimates about half a million people will be displaced by this
particular project. In a different context, this number would have been enough
to justify a 'humanitarian intervention' by the US.
entire process ensures that the worst off get worse off. In order to administer
the huge areas affected by the dam, authority is centralized. The lands,
forests, and livelihoods of people are taken over. Because these resources were
not legally, privately held by the people using them, they often do not even
qualify for compensation.
there are the ecological costs. Dam reservoirs eventually fill with silt.
Salinization, which follows the silting, destroys agricultural lands. Altering
the flows and chemistry of rivers endangers and destroys fish populations. On
the Narmada, the hilsa fisheries are the livelihoods of about 40 000 people.
These will be lost.
the benefits were terrific enough, though, even these costs could be justified.
The problem is that the terrific benefits aren't forthcoming, nor are they all
that terrific. The first dam built on the Narmada only managed to irrigate as
much land as it submerged. The electricity produced by the entire Sardar Sarovar
Project will likely by about 3% of what its proponents claim. And as for
bringing drinking water to millions, there are no detailed plans for getting the
water to the villages. Many of the villages the proponents claim will be getting
water from the Narmada are much closer to other rivers whose water they haven't
seen (or drank). Again, because authorities, whatever they claim, make water
flow to political power.
even successful irrigation can be made to make people worse off, and not better
off. This is just what happened in the Punjab. The high costs of irrigation
favor capital-intensive farming, cash crops, and larger farms-- and helps to
make labor-intensive, small, food-crop growing farms, and all the people on
them, uneconomical. The other term for 'uneconomical' is 'landless laborer'. The
yields from the new agriculture decline as the high-intensity cropping exhausts
the soil. Vandana Shiva has suggested that these changes in the agricultural
system-- brought about in part by dams-- are responsible for what is today
labeled the 'religious conflict' in the Punjab.
if the costs outweigh the benefits by so much, why is the government insistent
on pushing this project through? Because of the interests involved. Because dams
aggrandize governments. Because they allow bureaucracies, western dam-building
companies and aid agencies to line their pockets and build their empires. To
transfer control over benefits and resources from the worst off to the
wealthiest. The supreme court decision represents the congealment of these
interests. But it does not represent the end of the NBA's struggle.
most recent press release has asked for an executive order from India's
President to stay the completion of the dam, invoking his constitutional duty to
protect India's tribal peoples. The NBA has promised that its highly successful
education, activism, and civil disobedience will continue. Because this
project-- like these projects all over the world-- are the work of international
elite alliances, the people will have to make alliances of their own to fight
them, and fight for a sane kind of development. The support of activists from
the North, where the dam-building corporations and unfavorable loans come from,
ZNet's South Asia Watch is www.zmag.org/southasia1/southasia.htm