Report on Medha Patkar's Debate on Sardar Sarovar

Date: 11 May 94

I attended a seminar organized last weekend in Chicago titled "Development With Equity and Sustainability" which principally featured Medha Patkar, the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement). The seminar was hosted by the India Development Service, a Chicago based organization. It was organized in the form of a debate between supporters of the Narmada dam in the US, and there are plenty of those, and the supporters of the Andolan. The seminar turned out to be fairly well attended with over a hundred people in the audience.

The most outstanding aspect of the seminar, and easily its most memorable moments, was the speeches by Medha. She is an inspiring speaker, to say the least. I and others in the audience were left breathless by her stunning breadth and depth of knowledge. She addressed every possible issue related to the dam and supported every argument with quotations from reports of various agencies, governmental organizations, and individuals. She tackled issues from the very technical aspects of the construction and design of the dam to the everyday aspects of the life of the people in the valley. And, in all this, she spoke with an amazing simplicity and humility. But then, I'm jumping the gun. Let me go through the events in a somewhat chronological manner.

The morning session of the seminar opened with Dr Ramesh Diwan, who is a "Gandhian" economist at the Renessalear Polytechnic Institute. In his talk he criticized the whole approach of developmental agencies and policies, stating that "the whole idea of and concept of development as we understand it in the last 40 years is dead." He said that the concepts of "development" and "sustainability" were contradictory.

This was followed by a talk by John Marlin, who works with the Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center, of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources. He had worked extensively with large dams in the US and pointed out right at the start that individual farmers in the US who had had to lose their land to large irrigation dams were always told that they had to place the larger interests of the nation over their personal ones. The design and justification of large dams seemed peculiarly in the domain of "experts" and "engineers", whereas the common people who had an opinion on living and livelihood were always considered to be secondary. His most powerful argument was a triangular grid model of the parties who support the construction of large dams -- vested economic interests, political interests, and developmental agencies. The three formed a powerful block that invariably supported and built large dams to the detriment of, and disregarding the interests of, the affected populace.

There followed a couple of speakers, Drs Barai and Dave, who were in support of damming the Narmada for the Sardar Sarovar Project. Their basic contention, as also of the other pro-dam speakers who came later, was premised on the fact that Gujarat has suffered many droughts and the people, particularly in the districts of Kutch and Saurashtra, need the water from Narmada. They re-articulated the claims of development and that all the environmental damage to be done by the dam would be overcome by the reforestation plans of the Gujarat government and all people moved out from the Narmada valley would be adequately rehabilitated. The case was presented somewhat sanely and maturely by Barai and Dave, but the later speakers -- Babubhai Patel, Lalit Dalal, and Indravan Nanavati, were mostly assertive, rhetorical, and in the case of Lalit Dalal (a retired chief secretary of Gujarat who claims to have worked at the "grassroots" level) pompous and vain. Babubhai Patel was not invited to speak but forced his way in and proceeded to make personal and insulting remarks about Medha. When the audience objected, he had nothing left to say but reiterate some inane slogans. The "pro-dam" thus clearly displayed its lack of understanding of the basic issues and ignorance of the important facts.

Medha spoke in three different sessions, once on the subject of development, and later on the SSP itself. It would be impossible for me to paraphrase what she said. All I can do is give a flavour of some of the arguments and reasoning that she used. I have her speeches on tape and will attempt to transcribe them at a later date and put them up on the net. She began be disagreeing with Diwan on the grounds that development was not a dead idea, and that all humans want to change and grow, except that they want to do so on their own terms, not at the behest of experts and developmental agencies. She made the point that development is taken seriously when it comes from the powerful but when the same ideas are articulated by people in the valley or those living on the streets in Bombay, these are dismissed as mere emotional outbursts. Development cannot proceed without the participation and involvement of the people concerned.

Medha pointed out that she was consciously aware of the acute need for water of people in certain districts of Gujarat and sympathised with them. On a very touching note she added that the people of Narmada Valley who are to lose their land because of the dam also sympathize with the "thirsty" of Gujarat and have offered that they migrate to the valley where there is plenty of water and fertile land. This was a "mad" and very magnanimous gesture on the part of the people of the valley. Her most significant point about the water supply to Gujarat from the dam was that a very small percentage of the population, about 16% in the districts in Kutch and Saurashtra, were going to receive the benefits anyway. And this was provided a parallel dam was constructed in Madhya Pradesh that would hold the water to be channeled out, and the channels were constructed with adequate space to hold the water. She was sure that the dam in MP was not possible because of their dire financial conditions. Thus the whole issue of the needy people of Gujarat receiving the Narmada waters in adequate quantities was moot, and other, more viable projects and proposals available were not being looked at because of the obsession of the Gujarat government with this project.

Another important issue was that of the rehabilitation of the people in the valley whose land has already been submerged, was inadequate and far below the promises made by the Gujarat government. This was highlighted by the World Bank's Morse Commission report also, which highlighted the poor rehabilitation undertaken and the impossibility of doing so in the face of the tremendous odds. Medha quoted extensively from this report and other sources that highlighted the halfhearted and meagre efforts of the Gujarat govt in finding proper rehabilitation, also of the people downstream who are Gujaratis.

Medha also pointed out the infeasibility of the project from the financial and technical perspectives. She quoted an independent report that showed that the benefit/cost ratio for the project was less than 1, given the massive investments and the slow pace of construction. She also showed that in terms of design a lot of details had been glossed over or simply misstated.

Lori Udall, of the International Rivers Network, who has observed the activities of NBA, and who spoke in the afternoon session, made an interesting remark. She said that people mostly looked at what the World Bank was doing in various countries, but she wanted to highlight what the NBA had done to the World Bank: "... they have forever changed the way the WB looks at large dam projects. In fact, right across the world the discourse on dams has changed because of the work done by Medha and her colleagues."

The last speaker, before the final question answer session, was Ashvin Shah, a civil engineer from Gujarat, presented an alternative design of the dam which overcomes many of the problems that are present in the current design. He emphasized the need for engineers to consider humanitarian and ecological issues while designing structures like dams, and not just consider the investments and cash flows.

An interesting incident occurred just before the last question answer session. There was a short tea break during which an independent film-maker, Ali Kazimi, offered to show a film he was making on the Andolan. The organizers agreed and the film was screened. It was a very moving and powerful exposition of the Andolan, and focused on the masses of people involved. One very touching image was that of hundreds of people walking in a protest march with their hands tied in front of them. The audience was clearly moved. Lalit Chandra at this point got up and started yelling that that film should not have been shown and was totally out of context. Ashvin Shah, who was moderating, exchanged some hot words with him and turned and asked the audience to show with hands raised whether the film was relevant or not. Virtually every hand in the auditorium went up immediately.

After the seminar Medha met with many in the audience who wanted to actively support the Andolan. She had specific suggestions: 1) write to the PM and to Sharad Pawar, urging them to halt the construction of the dams and the illegal evictions; 2) write to the WB president (Lewis Preston) to face up to their responsibility and pressure the Indian govt to halt the construction, now that they themselves realize the problems with the project; 3) contact as many people as possible in the US and Canada and ask them to write or sign the petitions (to be posted on this net); 4) if you know someone in Gujarat, ask them to put pressure at the local level to halt the construction.

Medha repeatedly emphasized the urgent nature of the situation. Since the sluice gates have been closed, the monsoon will cause the waters to rise. The situation can only be helped if the construction is stopped and the sluice gates are opened. It is urgent that international pressure be applied to the govts of PVNR and MP, to halt the construction immediately.
-- Rahul De'

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