Water worshipping

Toward Sustainable Development? Struggling over India's Narmada River - Water and Womanhood
March 8, 1996

In a telling phrase, Jawaharlal Nehru called dams, factories, and the new industrial enterprises the "temples" of modern India. The buzzword of the present Indian government is "liberalisation". Both the Nehruvian and the present models depend on a top-down definition of development, in which an educated elite decides what is good for the rest of the country. The "temples", it may be argued, have remained the same, only the priests and some of the rituals have changed. What cannot be disputed, however, is that neither of these models has made any substantial improvement in the quality of life of most of the population.

It is in this context that the debates and controversies raging around the Sardar Sarovar Project , a vast dam-building exercise on the Narmada river, must be seen. This book, the outcome of a 1992 conference held at Columbia University, is a collection of 17 essays.

The first, by the editor William F. Fisher, briefly traces the project's history, from the initial suggestion for damming the river, made as early as 1946, to the present controversies. The second, by Chris Deegan, surveys the history and myths associated with the Narmada.

The polemical sparks start flying with the second section. It begins with a straightforward official justification of the dam by Chandrakant C. Patel, complete with cliches ("poverty is the greatest pollutant"), government slogans ("The Sardar Sarovar Project is the lifeline of Gujarat"), unsubstantiated charges against the World Bank's unfavourable independent review of the dam and barely concealed animosity towards anti-dam activists ("this opposition sprang more from emotion than from any rational or constructive analysis").

Thomas A. Blinkhorn and William T. Smith give an account of the World Bank's role in the Sardar Sarovar Project and their essay is instructive for its acknowledgement of the bank's errors and the divided response within the bank to the independent review. For Blinkhorn and Smith, development is "essentially a muddling-through process" and, with all its drawbacks, the project is a necessary and viable part of India's development efforts.

In the two other essays in this section, Rahul N. Ram, an environmental toxicologist, and Shripad Dharmadhikary, an engineer, bring their considerable expertise to two scathing attacks on the project. After examining official claims about the availability of water for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectricity, Ram concludes that "all the benefits claimed for the project have been consistently, systematically and deliberately overstated by the project authorities" and adds that "the needy regions of Gujarat I are unlikely to get any of the overall benefits of this project", which will go to the "already rich and politically powerful 'mainline corridor' of central Gujarat I further cementing its dominance in the state". Dharmadhikary, in "Hydropower at Sardar Sarovar: is it necessary, justified, and affordable?" concludes that it is none of these. He suggests "modular" alternatives that are "cheaper, faster, and far less socially and environmentally disruptive" besides being "the better investment choice".

The third section deals with the human aspects of the controversy. Medha Patkar, best known of the leaders of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), gives a historical perspective to the grassroots struggle against the dam, while Lori Udall writes of the sustained international campaign. Udall highlights the World Bank's role and failures, the United States's Congressional hearings, their impacts on other countries, the involvement of Japanese nongovernmental organisations, (leading ultimately to the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund's withdrawal of support for the dam), and ends with a call to reexamine the structure and functioning of bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Sandwiched between these two pieces is Anil Patel's essay on the tribals of the Narmada valley, where he asserts that, with or without the dam, these tribals are engaged in a continuous and complex relationship of resistance to and negotiation with the Indian state and its agencies. Patel feels that to oppose the project on the ground that tribal lifestyles should be left undisturbed is untenable and believes that the resettlement plans made for the tribals will benefit them in the long run.

This question of resettlement is treated at some length in the fourth section. It is necessary to remember that opposition to the dam began as a criticism of the lack of adequately detailed resettlement plans for the "oustees". (Some 30-odd villages in Maharashtra will be submerged thanks to the project.) Later this grew to include questions about the project's likely environmental impact and cost-benefit analyses. This, in turn, led to criticisms of centrally planned development projects in India, before becoming a critique of the paradigm of development per se.

The technical and environmental aspects of the project are addressed in the fifth and sixth sections as is the World Bank's independent review. Those for and against the project put their cases with cogent arguments and compelling logic. Yet, the proponents of the project do not (cannot?) adequately answer the questions raised by the opponents.

These seemingly irreconcilable differences between the dam's supporters and adversaries are considered at length in the two fine essays by Smitu Kothari and Fisher in the final section of the book. Both make the point that the issues raised by the Narmada controversy go much beyond local conditions and concerns. Fisher is surely right in arguing that the search for a new paradigm for sustainable development "should be less a search for a new model of development than for a new process of development" and that this search will be "productive only when we treat sustainable development not as the answer but as the field within which we search".

After the impassioned polemics of Toward Sustainable Development?, it is almost a relief to come to Anne Feldhaus's Water and Womanhood. There is none of the complex political argument and urgency of the other volume here. What Feldhaus sets out to do is to uncover the "deep-seated agreement" between the so-called "folk" and "classical" traditions in India "with respect to at least one cluster of religious values: wealth, beauty, long life, good health, food, love, and the birth of children". Feldhaus seems to agree with these traditions that these are values that "affirm that human life is inherently worthwhile".

The Narmada is one of the more important rivers of Maharashtra, having, as Feldhaus notes, great religious and social significance. It seems almost churlish to point out that it was precisely during the period of her fieldwork that the controversies around the Sardar Sarovar Project started with the first anti-dam protests in Maharashtra.

Water and Womanhood is a contribution to South Asian religious studies, but it is difficult to concede it adds anything significant to women's studies, as the publisher claims, given its almost exclusive concern with texts and beliefs and avoidance of anything coming close to contemporary social, ecological and political concerns.

Samantak Das is a lecturer in English, Visva Bharati University, India; he was formerly on the Eastern Region Committee of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Toward Sustainable Development? Struggling over India's Narmada River

Editor - William F. Fisher
ISBN - 1 56324 341 5 and 525 6
Publisher - M. E. Sharp
Price - 62.95 and £22.50
Pages - 481

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