Why Ambedkerites should be against large dams

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Chandrabhan Prasad’s article entitled ‘The New Life Movement Versus Narmada Bachao Andolan’ (The Pioneer, 22 October 2000) adds yet another angle to the issue of democracy and development in India. The article, perhaps, for the first time ever, has invoked Ambedkar’s notion of the New Life Movement, his ideas on modernization and his critique of Gandhian traditionalism as arguments for the rejection of the NBA and Medha Patkar in particular. Prasad, undoubtedly, has legitimate grounds to bring in the legacy of Ambedkar into the large dam controversy.

Post-independence India’s ‘romance’ with large dams has wrongly been attributed entirely to Nehru’s vision for industrialization through multi-purpose river valley projects. It was B.R. Ambedkar, who, in fact, throughout the mid 1940s, as the then Member for Labour in the Viceroy’s Council, played the most central role in introducing large dam technologies into India. Not only did Ambedkar deploy his considerable charisma and skills in helping set up the Central Water Irrigation and Navigation Commission but was instrumental in resolving several inter-provincial problems of coordination and finance that had dogged the first projects viz., the Hirakud and Damodar Valley dams. (See Thorat, ed., Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resources Development, Central Water Commission, Delhi, 1993.)

Ambedkar made it amply clear in several of his pronouncements on water projects that he viewed such technologies and a scientific worldview as key determinants in the struggle against the obscurantism and backwardness of caste Hinduism and any traditionalism that was rooted in India’s exploitative social and political institutions. Inspired by the Tennessee Valley Project dams (TVA), he was keen on enabling Indian engineering expertise to benefit from interacting and acquiring help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the leading organization that undertook large dam projects in the United States in that period. In sum, Ambedkar was an enthusiast for large dam construction and advocated their adoption in India, not merely as technical interventions but as a necessary complement to realizing a modern social vision. In other words, Ambedker did not, as much as he could not, isolate his ideas on modernization from its several social implications.

Prasad’s unease with NBA’s ‘traditionalism’, therefore, must be situated in the larger politics of the urgency for dalit’s to comprehensively reject India’s cultural past and ethos, which reifies and reminds them of their bondage by brahminism. Tribals, consequently, for him are not pristine ecological communities or bearers of a harmonious social homogeneity but subjects principally constituted by their economic backwardness, social oppression and political marginality. Emancipation of both – the dalits and tribals – for Prasad, consequently, lies precisely in their being uprooted or displaced. Development is, in a sense, for him, a complete severance with the past; a wrenching of India’s most oppressed from the traditions of their land, the locality, the village and their rural/natural social and economic context. These masses thus uprooted and dispersed by development projects, in his opinion, would then be relocated in India’s urban centres, wherein they could finally begin to grapple with the task of acquiring a new material and cultural world anchored in science, technology and the ‘enlightenment’ of the West (i.e. explicitly non-Indian). Development, for Prasad, is a concrete annihilation of India’s rural past.

It is important to understand that Prasad’s ire against the NBA and Medha is less concerned with their arguments against the Narmada scheme than it is with what he considers to be their fatal innocence of India’s complex social reality. The defense of the tribal world, its natural way of life and the upholding of the Gandhian rural ideal is, in many ways, to Prasad a recall for the ancient oppression through caste and thereby runs counter to Ambedker’s strategy to batter down moribund brahminism with science, technology and westernization. Progress is the burying of the past/tradition, not its celebration, and modernity is to act unambiguously as the latter’s solvent. Prasad’s hope to use large dams in this mission, however, may be misplaced in the light of a vast body of new evidence on the performance of river valley projects.

Large dams are now correctly considered to be non-viable technologies and are no longer, save for parts of the Third World, accepted as part of the development package. Definitive and conclusive evidence exists that their costs far outweigh their benefits. Besides eroding the environmental integrity of river regimes, destroying wetlands, eliminating natural fish runs, negatively influencing micro-climates and even inducing seismic vulnerability, these structures have inevitably been mobilized by elites to intensify social inequity. Large dams, moreover, have rarely, if ever, been able to deliver the quantity of benefits listed in their pre-project claims. It is galling that the Government of India has to this day not instituted a single impartial and comprehensive review to assess the performance of any one of its multi-purpose projects, despite the investment of millions of rupees of tax payers’ money on them.

The United States played the single most important role in influencing and enabling India’s post-independence romance with large dams. Teams of American engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation helped scout sites, outline plans and formulate designs for many of the large dams. In fact, well into the late 1950s, American private engineering firms, construction companies and suppliers of heavy equipment swelled the ranks of large dam specialists ‘developing’ India’s water resources. Such was the level of interaction between the countries in the field that Nehru, on his visit to the United States in 1948, personally involved himself in the effort to hire a chief engineer for the Damodar Valley Corporation.

In the United States today, however, the enthusiasm for large dams has been completely arrested and reversed. Not only is there a cap on the construction of any such schemes on its rivers, but the government is also actively pursuing a policy for decommissioning existing dams by physically removing them in several instances. On the other hand, investments are now being redirected for river restoration, flood-plain recovery by phasing out embankments, wetland revival and the rehabilitation of river eco-systems for fisheries.

Three factors have broadly combined to cause this retreat. First, popular pressure generated by environmentalists has decisively swung the public mood against large dams. Second, scientific opinion and reviews of some of the existing projects have been conclusive in questioning its beneficial role and have successfully revealed that costs (both social and environmental) have been grossly underestimated. Third, is the idea of ‘ecological modernization’, which has begun to acquire many adherents.

Proponents for ecological modernization argue that those societies which invest in preserving and enhancing their natural endowments in current times will in the future be able to gain immense economic and political benefits. The argument being that regimes possessing relatively better ecological stability will draw from the advantage of having to spend less on habitat restoration and pollution mitigation, besides being spared social unrest induced by eco-system breakdowns.

The far sightedness of ecological modernization is, of course, an impossible vision for India’s current ruling elites. Timber contractors, quarrying interests, sweatshop factory owners, petty traders, green revolution farmers and big industrialists, to name a few, are under no compulsion to have a vision of development that is based on anything but profit in the short run. They have gone through great trouble to deform the political process in the last 50 years and reduce ‘democracy’ in India to an instrument for their interests. A dam on a river is electricity for their factories and cities, it is cheap irrigation water for their hybrid monocultures, and so many millions of rupees in easy cement or construction contracts for their relatives and friends. The nation needs development and the nation is theirs.

One must also not be innocent of the several sociological peculiarities that colour India’s enterprise for development. A sociology of rule and economic growth that has ancient roots continues to specifically target tribals, dalits and swathes of other marginalized social groups for further impoverishment. In the case of the tribals and dalits even crumbs of economic benefits to thin layers of their populace have not translated into social equality for them. Not surprisingly, one finds Medha Patkar stating that ‘people have been left out of the process of development’ and Prasad, in his article, reiterates that the dalits ‘viewed the freedom movement with suspicion.’ A suspicion that was also expressed by the Communist Party of India in 1947 when it was singular in warning that freedom was being emptied of its democratic content by the new rulers.

The debate on large dams in India must, therefore, be understood in the backdrop of its political economy and political culture. Consequently, Prasad’s interpretation of project displacement as a simple act of physical relocation and his hope in modernization as a solvent of rural idiocy and oppression is an unqualified assertion. Project displacement is actually one element of a part of a broader and insidious process wherein large masses of the Indian people are being dispossessed from their ownership of and access to their means of subsistence while being slammed into the ranks of the urban proletariat and landless agricultural wage labourers.

In other words, the majority of the 40 odd million project affected persons (PAP) in the last 50 years in India, have been commodified into wage labour through the state’s use of direct physical violence rather than the invisible hand of the market. The PAP’s subsistence resources have been seized, their forests eliminated, their rivers dammed, their lands drowned and all, with the exception of a few, unceremoniously flung onto the vagaries of the economy after being reduced to owners only of their labour power for barter and wage. No understand ing of project displacement can ignore this fact and explains why the Indian government has, to this day, not had a single instance in which PAP’s have been meaningfully rehabilitated.

The government has, in fact, only recently been compelled, after intense popular pressure, to accept the idea of land for land as a principle for compensation, that too only in some projects. The truth is that the PAPs were never meant to be rehabilitated or compensated. Instead, they were expected to be consigned to the vast numbers that provide cheap labour in India’s sweat-shops – her unorganized and informal industrial sectors – or turned into seasonal wage labourers for capitalist farmers.

This explains why, albeit in a somewhat looped manner, Medha’s passionate defense of the tribal way of life and Arundhati’s lyrical prose celebrating their struggle must be considered as progressive politics aimed at preserving subsistence economies from violent capitalist expropriation. In essence, the NBA’s intervention on displacement and rehabilitation must be understood as attempts to prevent the marginalized from being further impoverished and condemned to wage labour. Prasad would do well to accept that project displacement is not mere physical relocation but part of a political trajectory intrinsic to a capitalist economy.

On the other hand, Prasad is correct in arguing that the dalits who comprise the large majority of India’s rural landless labourers, need to be displaced from their oppressive location in India’s rural landscape. However, he needs to emphasize that this displacement must be through a process of empowerment, i.e. education, land distribution or government jobs, and not simple physical relocation. The history of project displacement in India has thus far overwhelmingly resulted in the displaced communities being emasculated, both socially and economically.

But all displaced communities are not necessarily only tribals and dalits and Prasad does well to point out that the PAPs of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) include both tribals and a large number of landed patidars, who are capitalist farmers in the Nimad or Narmada valley. These patidars are not only practitioners of green revolution farming but use agricultural wage labour for their operations. On surface, it clearly does appear politically awkward that the patidars have found themselves embracing both an environmental movement and the demand for social equity.

In effect, the patidars must betray their class interests in order to be genuine constituents of the NBA. But here, rather than flaying the NBA for cynicism or political opportunism in evoking only the tribal as the victim, one must credit them for their clarity in insisting that the basis of the struggle is entirely pivoted on the world of the tribal. This posture assumes supreme importance when one considers the fact that the Digvijay Singh government in Madhya Pradesh is more than willing to press for the reduction of the height of the SSP from 488 ft to 436 ft in order to save the patidars lands. The NBA, however, has been singularly firm in demanding the total abandonment of the project because at any height the dam will primarily drown and wound tribal lands and forests.

The patidars are undoubtedly in the NBA because it is the only organization that can enable them to save their lands. The NBA, on the other hand, must be credited for drawing the patidars into the agitation without allowing them to define the agenda or set the terms of the struggle. A review of the NBA literature makes it amply clear that the struggle against the Narmada scheme is not a defense for green revolution capitalist farming but a democratic movement for justice, equity and genuine development for the most oppressed sections of the populace.

If one is to understand Ambedkar’s encouragement of river valley projects as part of his effort to bring about social equity through modernization, then one need only extend the same logic along his path of reasoning and reject large dams because they have failed on both counts. Enough evidence and documentation exists to prove that large dam projects are causing dangerous and irreversible damage to the environment and thereby undermining modernization in the long run. Evidence also exists to show that in India there has not been a single case in which PAPs have been empowered through rehabilitation, after being displaced by a large dam project. Again, not because rehabilitation policies were not properly carried out but precisely because they were effectively implemented as measures to dispossess the marginal and poor from their subsistence means.

It bears reiteration that large dams are one amongst a number of instruments fashioned by our ruling elites to centralize control over public resources and redirect them for the exclusive use of a few. Damming a river is one way of taking it away from the fisherman, tribal, dalit and others on the margins of the national economy. The same river transformed into killowatts and irrigation water (for hybrid crops) now advances the interests of a new layer of society. The majority of the PAPs meanwhile crowd cities and lodge in slums in abysmal conditions of poverty and destitution and inevitably become the reserve army of labour so vital to depress wages in the capitalist economy.

Meanwhile, in the long run, the flora and fauna of the river is destroyed; salinity overwhelms its irrigated command area; its waters are rendered sterile after their chemical composition and temperature is altered and finally the complex ecology linking wetland, drainage and tributary is irreversibly disrupted. Then the reservoir silts up and the dam dies. All those who benefited and all those who suffered will be united by one reality – no river.

Prasad has correctly expressed his misgivings about ‘traditionalism’. He is accurate in emphasizing that the dalit condition can only be rescued by a rejection of India’s past. He must also be credited for being prescient in acknowledging the role of modernization, science and technology as liberators of India’s socially and economically oppressed. Consequently, on reviewing India’s experience with river valley projects, upon judging its proponents, on identifying its actual beneficiaries, and examining its impacts and assessing its politics, it must occur to an Ambedkerite that the search for equity, justice and progress must also be a struggle against large dams.

Rohan D’Souza