Magazine article New Internationalist

The Day of Judgement: The Case of Narmada vs the Union of India Was a Case of the People vs Development, the People Lost, or Did They?

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Day of Judgement: The Case of Narmada vs the Union of India Was a Case of the People vs Development, the People Lost, or Did They?

Article excerpt

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ON 18 October 2000 the Supreme Court of India handed down an historic judgement. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada movement - NBA) had petitioned the Court to halt the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River. By a majority of two to one the judges decided that the dam should go up from its existing 88 metres towards the full final height of 139 metres. On the evening television news the leader of the NBA - Medha Patkar - was seen by the nation to be in tears.

Her anguish was understandable. Since entering the petition in 1994, the Andolan had presented a mountain of evidence that the project had flouted its conditions of construction and was unlikely to fulfil its promises to take water to thousands of parched villages in Gujarat. Only one judge had treated the NBA's evidence with respect. Because of the decision, the lands and forests that support the lives of 200,000 people will be submerged. To date, the 'rehabilitation' they are entitled to is, for many, a sham. Thousands of others who don't face actual submergence also face destitution, but there is no rehabilitation at all for them.

I am in a restaurant in Mumbai having lunch with a group of activists and journalists who have long supported the Narmada movement and its dharnas - struggles. They were gathered here by Medha Patkar by phone the night before. In Medha's hands the phone is an instrument of dharna - there are hundreds of numbers in her head, and under her relentless dialling India awakes. At this moment she is trying to meet the Chief Minister to discuss the fate of people displaced by large projects. Later she will be arrested for marching at their head. She is a truly extraordinary person.

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Sixteen years ago Medha started walking from village to village in the area to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam, and a people's movement took off. In the late 1980s it became an international cause celebre, campaigning for the World Bank to cancel its $450 million loan to the project. In 1993, the Bank withdrew - an unprecedented event, helped by international pressure and a damning review from a high-level independent team.(1) But the state filled the gap. The dam went on rising. So did the struggle in the Valley. In 1999, the Booker Prize-winning author, Arundhati Roy, gave a new burst of international publicity to the Narmada cause in a widely published essay, The Greater Common Good. She fights on for Narmada with her pen and her celebrity presence.

I met Medha Patkar at an international meeting. I had been hired by someone to write about large dams and I thought I should go and look at one. An artist friend, Lucy Willis, wanted to come too. Medha welcomed us. We were innocents. I never realized what we would find.

I ask my Mumbai lunch companions where I should start. The Narmada story winds through the political, economic and cultural fabric of three Indian states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) and up into the international stratosphere to the battle-lines against globalization. Its themes, sagas, betrayals, plots and sub-plots are tortuous. How can I make sense of all this in the short pages of a magazine, for people who couldn't find the river on a map, and usually pronounce it like Armada instead of Narrma-Da.

Dilip D'Souza, a journalist, is emphatic. 'You must start with the Supreme Court judgement'. 'But,' I protest, 'the judgement is the climax, the denouement, the nadir - it will be like starting at the end.' 'No,' the others agree. 'Start with the judgement. The judgement is of immense significance.' So I have.

The judgement is not just a verdict on this large dam. It is a verdict on whether the state is willing to question its iron-clad commitment to a form of grand-slam development which wreaks massive human and environmental damage for dubious economic gain. Not only Gandhi's inheritors, but other hard-nosed analysts are asking why - after 50 years of it - are India's water problems getting worse, its small farmers driven to the wall, its poverty more acute? …

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