Sardar Sarovar Dam
Why did I laugh?
Because I suddenly remembered the
tender concern with which the Supreme Court judges in Delhi (before vacating the legal
stay on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam) had enquired whether tribal
children in the resettlement colonies would have children's parks to play in. The lawyers
representing the government had hastened to assure them that indeed they would, and,
what's more, that there were seesaws and slides and swings in every park. I looked up at
the endless sky and down at the river rushing past and for a brief, brief moment the
absurdity of it all reversed my rage and I laughed. I meant no disrespect.
Let me say at the outset that I'm not a city-basher. I've done my time in a village. I've
had first-hand experience of the isolation, the inequity and the potential savagery of it.
I'm not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom
and tradition. What I am, however, is curious. Curiosity took me to the Narmada valley.
Instinct told me that this was the big one. The one in which the battle-lines were clearly
drawn, the warring armies massed along them. The one in which it would be possible to wade
through the congealed morass of hope, anger, information, disinformation, political
artifice, engineering ambition, disingenuous socialism, radical activism, bureaucratic
subterfuge, misinformed emotionalism and of course the pervasive, invariably dubious,
politics of International Aid.
Instinct led me to set aside Joyce and Nabokov, to postpone reading Don DeLillo's big book
and substitute it with reports on drainage and irrigation, with journals and books and
documentary films about dams and why they're built and what they do.
My first tentative questions revealed that few people know what is really going on in the
Narmada valley. Those who know, know a lot. Most know nothing at all. And yet, almost
everyone has a passionate opinion. Nobody's neutral. I realised very quickly that I was
straying into mined territory.
In India over the last 10 years the fight against the Sardar Sarovar Dam has come to
represent far more than the fight for one river. This has been its strength as well as its
weakness. Some years ago, it became a debate that captured the popular imagination. That's
what raised the stakes and changed the complexion of the battle. From being a fight over
the fate of a river valley it began to raise doubts about an entire political system. What
is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its
rivers? Its forests? Its fish? These are huge questions. They are being taken hugely
seriously by the State. They are being answered in one voice by every institution at its
command-the army, the police, the bureaucracy, the courts. And not just answered, but
answered unambiguously, in bitter, brutal ways.
For the people of the valley, the fact that the stakes were raised to this degree has
meant that their most effective weapon-specific facts about specific issues in this
specific valley-has been blunted by the debate on the big issues. The basic premise of the
argument has been inflated until it has burst into bits that have, over time, bobbed away.
Occasionally a disconnected piece of the puzzle floats by-an emotionally charged account
of the government's callous treatment of displaced people; an outburst at how the Narmada
Bachao Andolan (nba), 'a handful of activists', is holding the nation to ransom; a legal
correspondent reporting on the progress of the nba's writ petition in the Supreme Court.
Though there's been a fair amount of writing on the subject, most of it is for a 'special
interest' readership. News reports tend to be about isolated aspects of the project.
Government documents are classified as 'Secret'. I think it's fair to say that public
perception of the issue is pretty crude and is divided, crudely, into two categories:
On the one hand, it is seen as a war between modern, rational, progressive forces of
'Development' versus a sort of neo-Luddite impulse-an irrational, emotional
'Anti-Development' resistance, fuelled by an arcadian, pre-industrial dream. On the other,
as a Nehru vs Gandhi contest. This lifts the whole sorry business out of the bog of
deceit, lies, false promises and increasingly successful propaganda (which is what it's
really about) and confers on it a false legitimacy. It makes out that both sides have the
Greater Good of the Nation in mind-but merely disagree about the means to achieve it.
Both interpretations put a tired spin on the dispute. Both stir up emotions that cloud the
particular facts of this particular story. Both are indications of how urgently we need
new heroes, new kinds of heroes, and how we've overused our old ones (like we overbowl our
The Nehru vs Gandhi argument pushes this very contemporary issue back into an old bottle.
Nehru and Gandhi were generous men. Their paradigms for development are based on
assumptions of inherent morality. Nehru's on the
paternal, protective morality of the Soviet-style Centralised State. Gandhi's on the
nurturing, maternal morality of romanticised Village Republics. Both would work perfectly,
if only we were better human beings. If only we all wore khadi and suppressed our base
urges-sex, shopping, dodging spinning lessons and being unkind to the less fortunate.
Fifty years down the line, it's
safe to say that we haven't made the grade. We haven't even come close. We need an updated
insurance plan against our own basic natures.
It's possible that as a nation we've exhausted our quota of heroes for this century, but
while we wait for shiny new ones to come along, we have to limit the damage. We have to
support our small heroes. (Of these we have many. Many.) We have to fight specific wars in
specific ways. Who knows, perhaps that's what the 21st century has in store for us. The
dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big
countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the
Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there's a small god up in heaven readying
herself for us. Could it be? Could it possibly be? It sounds finger-licking good to me.
I was drawn to the valley because I sensed that the fight for the Narmada had entered a
newer, sadder phase. I went because writers are drawn to stories the way vultures are
drawn to kills. My motive was not compassion. It was sheer greed. I was right. I found a
And what a story it is.