From Biblio, March-April 1998, p. 26.
Dam is a four letter world
The Dam and the Nation: Displacement and Resettlement in the Narmada Valley
Edited by Jean Dreze, Meera Samson and Satyajit Singh
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 349 pp., Rs. 495
Taming the Waters: The Political Economy of
Large Dams in India
A river in India is a celebration. It is a festival of religion, myth, science, work, music, ecology. To say it is life banalizes both words. A river is like an external unconscious flowing with all the memories, the detritus, the flotsam and jetsam of a civilization. Whether it is the Ganga, or even a coffee table book on it, whether the Indus, Brahmaputra or Cauvery, a river is a symphony of resonances. But when one hyphenates a river to a nation and talks of Taming the Waters or The Dam and the Nation, something dies.. It is as if death and disciplining go together. A river becomes less of a river. It becomes cusecs of water and calories of energy. It is an act of reductionism, where each word destroy or desiccates.
Martin Heidegger put this idea brilliantly. He was talking about his river, the Rhine. He said, "Consider the difference between an old bridge built over the Rhine and a modern power plant that uses the Rhine as a source of energy The bridge which is built into the river, lets the Rhine be itself and brings forward its essential character by bridging its separate banks. The hydroelectric plant, however, builds the Rhine into the plant itself so that the river becomes merely part of the machinery needed to generate electricity, The riverly character of the river is denied as it becomes merely a resource used to turn the generators. The mechanical force of the river is transformed into electrical force and the river b"cones technologically identified with electrical power."
Today the Narmada is becoming energy or electric power. The river is becoming a prop of lazy machine that needs to be re-worked. It is not just the tribals, who need to be rehabilitated, it is the river itself As river, it is untamed excess. It is force, it is unbounded. It needs to be disciplined. Implicit in all this is not just an industrializing of the river but a taming of sexuality, of nature as excess. When the discourse of dam-building is added to the discourse on Nation-building, something odd happens. Dam-building, nation-building, character-building all become engineering activities. Thu classic exposition of this was in the life of Visvesaraya, the great engineer, aptly called-the father of Indian planning.
What happens within the structure of such a discourse is that certain kinds of dissent become questionable. To question the dam is regarded as being anti-national. Criticizing large dams is unscientific. 'Good' dissent can only add epicycles to the reigning paradigm, the Comte-ist nation-state which believes dams are the temples of modern India. Within such a discourse, you can only talk of rehabilitation. It is a Henry Ford version of democracy which says "you can have any color you like as long as it is black." But there are possibilities even within this world of black brightening to grey or dull white.
The struggle against the Narmada dam has created an endless circle of debates. In that sense every protest movement is an act of rewriting history. But sometimes the history thus written become addendums on hydropolitics and tightens the nooses of discourse around the victims. It pits the ecological movements against the Indian state without realizing the particular amnesia this demands. Ironically the planned Indian state began as a discourse of ecology. Planning was an ecocratic discourse. The Indian state was an activity that sought welfare through ecolacy, controlling rivers, building dams, inaugurating irrigation programmes. But what began as a pursuit of welfare became an act of warfare where dams created more refugees than war. In questioning this discourse, three frames have to be simultaneously broken or modified-the scientific discourse, the democratic frame and the nation-state. Or at the least we must engage in the Chinese debate of Mr. Science versus Mr. Democracy. Patriarchal but still welcome. But what is missing in these two competent books is precisely this sense of ancestry and cognitive justice. The Narmada dam is amalgamated into a Western discourse of hydropolitics with no sense of the debates on energy, science and the dam of the Science and Culture group. A local genealogy is wiped out in a Ph.D tribute to IDS, Sussex. Secondly, the domain of the expert unquestioningly straddles both worlds. The expert as scientist dominates the world of science and democracy. Traditional practice is still ethnoscience. It still needs prefixes and suffixes to survive. Secondly, the idea of cognitive justice is missing, the sense that tribal worlds too have their forms of valid knowledge and well-being. The question one is asking is not against Cost-Benefit. The question is why leave the expert, as NGO, World Bank, or Hydrologist untouched? How does one solve a controversy which is both scientific and political? Is the victim only a document, a voice, or also a theorist? If so, can his notions of well-being be woven into the economists' model? Bela Bhatia's (Dreze, et al.) essay comes close to this view of the world.
Yet it is not a problem of method atone. It is not only the conversation between observer and observed, of committed participant observation which Bela Bhatia and Amita Baviskar and even Bradford Morse accomplish. It is a deeper sense of embeddedness, of involvement. A few years ago, in a debate with some World Bank experts at University of California, Berkeley, some activists made the following propositions to World Bank officials playing Mother Teresa. It is also relevant to our Indian experts who love to join the World Bank.
ii) Could World Bank and the Indian government provide insurance to all projects that go haywire?
iii) Or if one is tempted to see the World Bank as a moral or legal entity, can one hold a Nuremberg trial on aft development projects?
iv) Can project staff living in Third World areas live at the same standard as the people there?
v) Could we attach a human rights team to all development projects? Maybe even an Ombudsman?
vi) Development projects whether as dams, roads, or forest bills -- are or have to be democratic acts. So can one have an institutionalized process of referendum and recall for these projects? Mere transparency is inadequate."
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