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Jal Satyagraha:NOVEL SOCIAL MOVEMENT, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 14 Sept, 2012 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 14 September 2012

Jal Satyagraha


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The nation heaves a sigh of relief following the Madhya Pradesh Government finally ceding to the Jal Satyagraha demands after over two weeks. One, increasing the Omkareshwar Dam’s height and the affected villagers being given land in return for land they lost in Ghogalgaon village in Khandwa district.


It is immaterial whether this is a victory for the Jal Satyagrahis, belated dawn of good sense by the concerned authorities or a combination of both.  However, for development planners, it is a lesson that the awareness level of the people is rising higher and higher daily, and they can no longer be ignored.


Think. We have elected Parliament and State Legislatures, two-three tier panchayat bodies and gram sabhas, civil service, elaborate administrative apparatus, vibrant Party system along-with a vigilant media.  Resulting in increasing all around awareness to what is going on.


Nonetheless, development planning often comes into direct confrontation with the people at the grassroots. In recent decades, construction of large dams and sharing of river water have become matters of contentious politics not just in India, but globally.


In fact, transnational social conflict has grown over some projects whereby management of these clashes is one of the biggest challenges faced by many Governments vis-à-vis the process of development.


Arguably, environmentalists consider construction of large dams as a form of violence against nature and people. True, this might be an overstatement, but the trend today is towards small projects like digging canals and building local reservoirs.


But, for the dam building industry, social and environmental factors are not the primary concerns in pushing their projects as financiers are more concerned with investments and return. 


In several countries, reports of use of brutal state force to overcome people’s protest to construction of dams abound. The World Commission on Dams estimates that 40-80 million people were relocated to make way for big dams often without adequate compensation over a decade ago.


But as the Jal Satyagraha over the Omkareshwar Dam shows, protests also pay dividends. Recall, the Narmada Bachao Movement started in 2004-06 when the dam was constructed across the river Narmada by the Madhya Pradesh Government to supply power to the State.


It is one of the 30 big dams planned across the river which form a big complex of the Sardar Sarovar Project.  Wherein, all the major dams ---- Maheshwar, Nar Sagar, Maan, Tawa, Bargi, Indira Sager etc have witnessed people’s movements for safeguarding their rights under threat from development.


Notably, the independent National Campaign for People’s Right to Information found several “indefensible” social, political and economic injustices to the Narmada Valley people on account of construction of these mega projects. Endorsed, by a World Bank ecologist who identified 17 points of dispute between advocates of big dams and their critics. 


Among these were lack of transparency and participation as also involuntary resettlement which are invariably part of dam-related conflicts in India.


Arguably, many activists are not opponents of the idea of dam construction, but only want transparency of projects’ details, participation of concerned people affected by a project, proper assessment and verification of social costs and benefits.


Remember, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development held at Rio emphasised the concept of sustainable development.  In one of its preparatory meetings held in Dublin, certain principles were adopted, known as the Dublin Principles were regarding water governance.


One of these principles states: “Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners, and policy makers at all levels.”  Needless to say, this is clear assertion of the rights of the local people, a right that nullifies the notion of absolute rights of the State over natural resources. 


Unfortunately, in our country, affected local people including women have to go through an ordeal of remaining under neck-deep water for 17 days to impress upon the authorities the legitimacy of their rights and the need for quick reparation.


Why did it need a battle of wits, for the Madhya Pradesh Government to announce the reduction of the Omkareshwar Dam’s water level to 189 metres as demanded by the people along-with distribution of land in return for the land they had lost on 11th September?


Undeniably, expanding infrastructure is inevitable in developing nations. But, the pangs of consequent resettlement can and must be reduced as the first and most important step. Given that mass displacement has emerged as an unfailing companion of development projects


There is no gainsaying that development must have a human face.  In fact, what is considered as “obsessive concern for preserving the rights of the local people” on the part of the World Commission on Dams which is not relished by India must be adopted immediately.


In fact, a maximum number of non-violent Satyagraha as the form of protest have taken place with regard to irrigation projects. Opposition to increasing the height of Madhya Pradesh’s Indira Sagar Dam too witnessed another Jal Satyagraha and the protestors were pulled out of the water.


Presently, protestors at Tamil Nadu’s Kudankulam nuclear plant have taken a leaf from their counterparts in Madhya Pradesh and took recourse to a Jal Satyagraha by forming a human chain in the sea water.


Clearly, this ‘water therapy’ strategy is fast spreading in the New Social Movements. Whereby, these agitations are definite indications of mass awakening, not just for compensation and livelihood of their loss, but to stop the multifarious fallout of rapid development.  This cannot be ignored any longer.


What next? As considerable time is spent for preparations in all big projects, decision-making procedures at the preparatory stage need to be revised to include consultations with all stakeholders and provide for participation of affected people.  Also, details of projects should be made public.


In sum, more than these, educating the people on all aspects of the projects are the need of the hour. Particularly social and environmental issues, including public safety and welfare that touch the people around, must form part of project preparation. 


Alas! In our country, this most important task is pushed as the last item to taken up under compulsion if and when protests against projects turn uncontrollable. ----- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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