Friday, April 07, 2006

"Narmada Bachao Andolan" Se Bachao

Minister trying to placate.....unsuccessfully

The Narmada Bachao Andolan has been agitating since 1986 to stall the Narmada River Project, a project initiated as early as 1961 and approved after careful deliberations over a long period. The agitational approach of the Andolan has been allowed to continue for far too long and it is high time that not only the Government but also the people of India at large, demonstrate that the country’s development activities cannot be allowed to be held to ransom by such organizations.

The Delhi Police did well to arrest Medha Patkar and other Narmada Bachao Andolan activists and to take Medha Patkar to the Hospital. Although the activists tried to portray the police action as brutal, the police in this instance were simply dealing with the matter firmly in order to avert a law and order situation from developing. In fact, the farcical and unjustified fast and agitation should have been dealt with firmly a few days earlier, before Medha Patkar’s condition became serious enough to cause concern and enabling her to gain sympathies from the gullible public.

Instead of handling the situation properly soon enough, three Union Ministers were sent to placate Medha Patkar to end her fast. Perhaps, the Government deliberately did this to show that the lady was not willing to listen to reason. However, the Union Minister for Water Resources stating that he was not satisfied by the Rehabilitation efforts for the Project Affected Families complicated the situation indirectly lending encouragement to the lady in question.

The news media, especially the visual media, has also done its bit by needlessly giving high profile to pseudo activists like Arundhati Roy and others trying to project before the public that the agitation was justified and that police were brutal in dealing with the agitators. One lady in particular, in a discussion on a TV channel (CNN-ibn), did not allow eminent lawyer Harish Salve, who was involved in the matter, to present his reasoned responses and kept on interrupting with emotional outbursts till the programme ran out of time.

It is a pity that those who feel that Medha Patkar and her ilk have a just cause and a right to blackmail the Central and State Governments into changing their decisions, are either not fully aware or ignore the background of the entire issue.

A perspective on the events

The Narmada project has a long history dating back prior to Independence when in 1946, the then Governments of Bombay as well as CP & Berar had requested the Central Waterways, Irrigation and Navigation Commission to investigate the Narmada river system for basin-wise development. The first study commenced in 1947. After considerable background work, first stage of the Narmada project was inaugurated by Pandit Nehru in 1961.

In furtherance of the project, the Khosla Committee submitted a detailed Master Plan in 1965, which however, could not be implemented because of an Interstate dispute that was referred to Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal in 1968. After a compromise agreement between the States in 1974, the Tribunal finally declared its Award in 1978 and final order in 1979. The Award and Order were given by the Tribunal after consideration of available technical literature, comprehensive and thorough examination, and extensive studies on specific aspects by Irrigation Commission, Draught Research Unit and Meteorological Department. The Award specifically considered Relief and Rehabilitation aspects apart from dealing with the technical aspects of height, geological and seismic aspects, allocation of waters etc. The Tribunal also directed the constitution of an Inter-state authority, the Narmada Control Authority, as well as a Review Committee. In turn the NCA constituted various sub-committees to specifically deal with various aspects like Relief and Rehabilitation and Environment.

As far as the Environment aspects are concerned, the clearance was given by the Government in 1987 after a lot of discussions, and subject to several conditions to be observed. An independent machinery was created by NCA for monitoring and implementation of environmental activities, to ensure planning and implementation of environmental safeguards.

As far as relief and rehabilitation were concerned, the Supreme Court, based upon a private Writ Petition in 1991, gave a direction to Constitute a committee to monitor rehabilitation aspects of Sardar Sarovar Project.

Narmada Bachao Andolan

This organization is known to be an anti-dam organization in existence since 1986, and is opposed to the construction of the high dam. The construction of the dam was undertaken after the environmental clearance was given in 1987 and thereafter hundreds of crores were already invested in the project. The Andolan chose to file a Writ Petition in the Supreme Court in 1994, a full seven years after the final clearance was given and after detailed steps were taken by the Governments to establish proper mechanisms to ensure that environmental aspects as well as relief and rehabilitation aspects were properly addressed.

Since 1986, the NBA has been resorting to various approaches, including public agitations, to oppose the dam and stop the project and at its instance, the government even constituted a Five Member Group. However, its efforts failed to change the decisions taken after careful consideration of various aspects over a period of three decades and more.

The Supreme Court found that considering the long delay in filing, the Petition suffered from laches (neglecting to do what should or could, have been done to assert a claim or right for an unreasonable and unjustified time causing disadvantage to another). The Hon’ble Court rightly observed (see here):

“When such projects are undertaken and hundreds of crores of public money is spent, individual or organisations in the garb of PIL cannot be permitted to challenge the policy decision taken after a lapse of time. It is against the national interest and contrary to the established principles of law that decisions to undertake developmental projects are permitted to be challenged after a number of years during which period public money has been spent in the execution of the project.”

It is interesting to note that the Supreme Court decided to entertain the petition only to satisfy itself that there was proper implementation of the relief and rehabilitation measures at least to the extent ordered by the Tribunal Award i.e. to satisfy itself that rights of the affected families under Article 21 of the Constitution were protected.

In spite of the fact that it was not necessary for the Court to examine other issues raised by the Andolan, it did deal with some of the issues raised. Pertinently, in its reasoned Judgement , the Court did not find merit in any of the several contentions raised by the Andolan, considering the facts.

As regards relief and rehabilitation, detailed and exhaustive plans have been drawn by the States. The conditions of rehabilitation are such that the affected families are to be offered choices that should, in fact, make the quality of their lives better than the conditions they encountered in their original inhabitations. Elaborate mechanisms have also been established to monitor and ensure compliance and even a Grievances Redressal Mechanism has been put in place.

A detailed perusal of the Judgement of the Supreme Court (see here or here) should convince skeptics that all the Governments and Authorities involved in this project have taken proper steps not only to ensure optimization of benefits from this project but at the same time, taken more than adequate care to protect the interests of the oustees.

The Supreme Court itself, while disposing of the Petition in October 2000, gave a set of 10 directions covering not only environment and relief and rehabilitation aspects, but also for completing the project as expeditiously as possible.

Therefore, if the interests of any affected persons are not protected in terms of the approved mechanism, they certainly have the right to approach appropriate authorities or even the Supreme Court in case its directions are not complied with. Indeed, the Andolan did approach the Supreme Court with regard to certain issues on relief and rehabilitation related to the State of Madhya Pradesh and the appropriate directions were given by the Court in its Judgement dated 15th March 2005. (see here)

It also neeeds to be highlighted that the matter is once again coming up before the Supreme Court in this regard on 17th April, 2006. Not satisfied with this, it has simultaneously started the agitation in the form of dramatic fasts and dharna only with a view to gain support of gullible public and put undue pressure on the Government.

In resorting to such tactics, the Narmada Bachao Andolan is making a mockery not only of its approach to the Judiciary but also of the freedoms of assembly, speech and expression granted under the Constitution to suit its own ends, using the innocent oustees as their shields. It is hard to believe that the agitation is designed to serve the cause of the simple folk who are going to be affected and whose interests not only the State and Union Governments but also the Supreme Court are taking great care to protect.

If at this stage, instead of waiting for the matter to be heard by the Supreme Court to whom the Andolan has already approached, it still chooses persist with the agitational stunts, it can only mean that it is doing so either to satisfy the egos or for personal aggrandisement of those who are spearheading the same or simply to sabotage development work considered to be of great national interest. Any further delay due to such obstructionist activities will result in further cost escalations in this much delayed project. The cost, direct and indirect due to delayed realisation of benefits, will naturally be borne by the people.