Nehru had hailed big dams as the “temples of modern India.” Though he had subsequently revisited and altered his view- that the process of development in India was plagued by the “disease of giganticism”, it was too little, too late for a course correction. Because the mantra for “progress” and “development” had been cast in stone-the bigger the better. Size of the project- a multipurpose dam across a river, or a factory, a mining project, a car plant, or a nuclear reactor- was considered directly proportional to its purported benefits. To whom would these benefits accrue? The answer to that was also grand in scale- India’s teeming millions would stand to benefit, immensely. So proclaimed the theologists who undertook the building of “temples” with evangelical conviction and missionary zeal.
So pervasive has this idea become, that the entire “discourse” on development has been reduced to a pitched battle of binaries. It would be trite to talk about the evangelists, but the “heretics” do deserve a mention. For, they are portrayed as curmudgeons, revelers in misconceived Utopianism and antiquated romanticism, unpatriotic. The last adjective has been drawn out of the evangelists’ lexicon of bile and even used as a legal and policy tool to muzzle voices, to deprive and exclude. One just has to look at how “India Inc” bemoans the passage of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013, (LARR Bill). It deserves mentioning that this bill is more of a ruse to provide for dispossession and displacement on a larger scale, as brilliantly explained here. Or those driven to destitution by the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, or Posco’s project in Orissa, or Enron’s plant in Dabhol were charged with offences akin to treachery.
Therefore, in the run-up to the elections, when quantum leaps in infrastructural development is tom-tommed as the answer to the “bijli sadak paani” demand of the citizenry, it becomes imperative to interrogate the dominant rubric, drag out the issues of equity and accountability from the dark corners they have been coerced into. And what better way than to question the logic and implementation of huge dams like the Sardar Sarovar Project, aka the Narmada Dam or machinations to ensure energy security?
Darryl D’Monte extensively mapped how the groundswell of public opinion forced the government to call off the Silent Valley Project in Kerala in 1985. It was a victory for ecology and rights of those who would be displaced and disenfranchised, against “scientific opinion” (which was nothing but a command performance orchestrated by the Kerala State Electricity Board. A stellar role was played by the democratic protest- stakeholders on the losing side were not made to cower before the cannons of legal provisions invoked in the most unjust manner. In the wake of Jaitapur, where retired High Court judges were indicted for sedition just because they sided with the protesters (not nihilists, mind you, but the fishermen and farmers who would have been disposed of everything they legally own) this seems impossible now. The Narmada Dam- essentially an epitome of mendicant hyperbole, has for long shoved human rights and justice into a watery grave, the most recent instance being this man-made catastrophe.
Or consider wind energy. Theologists of the PPP (Public Private Partnership) Model must be at a loss for answers if confronted with evidence from Dhule in Maharashtra. Instead of bringing in much touted benefits of windpower, all it did was to breeze through concerns of viability and accountability and bring in windfalls for the operators of the windmills.
As regards land acquisition for “public interest” , the government has misused the “urgency clause”- Section 17 (1) of the Land Acquisition Act to benefit private interests by riding roughshod over the rights of the public. The Supreme Court did give the government a bloody nose while cancelling the land acquisition in Greater Noida, but it is only one of the few exceptions.
If one has to look for solutions which are not lofty in principle but wanting in effectiveness, one has to move beyond galvanizing global and national opprobrium against exploitative practices, and instead, marshal and mobilize legal and policy resources and strategy.
For instance, Michael B. Likosky advocates the strategic concept of “human rights risks” which project planners and implementers must consider and factor in before setting out to accomplish their task. This would involve ensuring that human rights violations- denial of compensation, or even, abrogation of the principles of equity and justice, does not stall the projects. Legal scholar Upendra Baxi who says that such standards of human rights should draw upon normative theories as well as social practice. “In the absence of commitment to evolve, expand and entrench such structures, substantive human rights standards only constitute, in the famous Holmesian epigram “the brooding omnipresence in the sky.””
Terra Lawson Remer presents the alternative of a “Property Insecurity Index” and a “Minorities at Risk” (MAR) database which assesses the political and economic exclusion of people who stand to lose their property because of infrastructural projects.
Moreover, adoption and implementation of a legal framework for addressing development-induced displacement is essential.
Measures such as these are only indicative and not exhaustive. However, there is one question which begs an answer- if the implementation of “bijli sadak paani” is so cruelly inequitable and exclusionary in nature, is it not ironical to regard it as a poll plank? Because elections are about the citizens exercising their democratic rights, and planks which shun a large number of citizens can be nothing but stairs of sand.
(Saurav teaches media law and jurisprudence in Bombay and Pune)